Attention, Interest, and Values

columbus__article-hero-1130x430.jpgIn Kogonada’s movie Columbus, the main character Casey and a coworker talk early on about perceptions of attention and interest. The example is of a professor whose son loves playing video games, but can’t sit for 10 minutes to read a book. Conversely, the professor can read for hours, but can’t seem to sit with his son and play video games for more than a few minutes.

The son gets labeled as having a short attention span and then probably something more official sounding like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – and prescribed medication, but doesn’t the professor doesn’t? The coworker then states to Casey that the problem is much less one of the ability to pay attention — the son obviously can and does pay attention to video games for hours, but one of interest. The professor is interested in reading, so he reads. The son in video games, so he plays video games.

The real problem then is not about short attention spans, but about the perception that we are losing interest in things that matter. The conversation dialogue between Casey and his coworker ends with that question, “Are we losing interest in everyday life?”

The question at the crux of this conversation is about what matters and what should we be interested in. Both of these questions feel highly subjective. You could be the professor and value knowledge and reading, or his son and value playing video games. Each person has their own version of what matters most and the answer to that question drives their own interest(s).

Although these questions feel subjective, there is one common answer when you ask people at the end of their lives what they regret most.

Put simply, when I asked one person, “Do you wish you accomplished more?” He responded, “No, I wished I loved more.”

Andi recently sent me this article (quoted above) on the subject and when I read it, the answer now feels less subjective and more clear – what matters most as we look back on our lives is not what we accomplished, the number of books read, or the number of video games played, but the quality and depth of the relationships in our lives.

If we agree that one of the things that matters most is life are our relationships with those around us, the question (“Are we losing interest in everyday life?”) from the movie feels like the wrong one. We aren’t losing interest in everyday life. We are getting distracted. We haven’t lost sight of what we value. We are spending our time on things that we don’t value.

For me, those distractions take the form of binge watching Netflix, scrolling aimlessly on my phone, and feeling the urge to pick my phone up whenever it lets me know that someone, somewhere wants my attention. Apparently I’m not the only one.

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Other studies show that the number of minutes spent on phones has continued to rise approaching 4 hours and 15 mins in 2018 in the US. 4 hours and 15 mins. We are increasingly acting in ways that are counter to what we value most — investing in the quality and depth of relationships of those around us — to….what? To see that I have been friends with someone on Facebook for 7 years? To immediately see the Bed, Bath and Beyond coupon that always makes it past my spam filter because of one purchase 5 years ago? To obsessively check my email?

To change my own behavior, I needed to understand how distracted I really was. I downloaded an app called Space (try Moment for iOS!) that tracks how much you use your phone and what you are spending your time on. The first day, I blew through their suggested goal – I unlocked my phone upwards of 150 times and used it for 2.9 hours. And day after day, I would do this consistently. Doing something 150 times a day is the definition of addiction. I set my goal to cut my usage in half –  to get less than 75 unlocks and 1.5 hours, daily.

To get there, I deleted a bunch of apps off my phone, stopped checking my phone as I woke up and have tried to leave my phone behind when I don’t need to bring it (like on this afternoon’s walk, for example). I don’t know that I’m no longer addicted, nor can I attest to feeling any differently at the quality of my relationships, but it’s a start.

All I know is that when I’m 90-something, I don’t want my big regret to be spending time with my smartphone over my wife and daughter.

What do you value? Is it the same thing as what you’re interested in? Are you paying attention to what you value, or like me, giving your attention to things that don’t matter?

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