We live in a ridiculously fast paced world. Information hurtles toward us in a variety of different ways. Social Media and web based ads are finding better and better ways to grab our attention. We have become the victims of a dwindling attention span where we continue to be moved from video to video, article to article, quote to quote, meme to meme. The battlefield is more even than it ever has been. Content is the king from a marketing perspective. If you are in business it is almost completely unthinkable to not have a strong market presence online. Meanwhile, social media has created a new form of news in the form of a feed. Like fast food feels good but fails to satisfy your hunger, social media feeds you with news you do not need but nonetheless desire.
It is because of this that we find ourselves glued to our screens even in social situations with friends and family. I am as guilty as the next person. Boredom is no longer a necessary experience. Now we can simply entertain ourselves at the touch of a button. But what does this mean for how our brains work? What does the huge power of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn and Twitter mean for how we think? Most importantly, what are the things that we need to do to stay focused and be as productive as possible? In short, how do we master our attention?
At a very simple level, our brains developed to help us survive. Back in the hunter gatherer period, they cultivated chemicals like adrenaline to rush through our systems in the event that we were threatened. As we evolved, human beings began to share news which informed us about what we needed to know to survive and thrive. The vast majority of news involved information about potential dangers. At a very basic level, this mirrored the news of the lion waiting behind the hill, back in the ancient days, which saved our life. For this reason, the majority of the news is orientated towards what has gone wrong or might go wrong. There is an obvious bias towards danger, negativity and problems in the news as it competes for our attention. This happens, very simply, because it knows that we are more likely to pay attention if the news is a threat.
Nowadays our news is not just coming from the traditional media. Instead, we are getting much more relevant news about the people in our lives. We are conditioned to pay attention to it and therefore we are becoming inundated with message after message, update after update and comment after comment. This form of news may not always be bad, but it produces an immediate emotion in us. This emotion could be worry, relief, excitement, delight… but our brain releases positive bursts of dopamine whenever we get such notices. Dopamine is connected to motivation and addiction in how it works. The fact that our brains are becoming wired to make us feel good when we check our messages means that social media is being consumed much like sugary treats.
So, with all of that said, what do we need to do? Well there are three strategies which can help. First, it is important to understand that it helps to give the brain what it wants. This means selecting certain times that you check in with what is happening with the important people in your world. It means being more selective over who you check in with and whose status updates you get in your news filter. This will allow you to make sure you are performing the necessary evolutionary function whilst avoiding it dominating your life.
Second, the key is to ask questions which keep your focus sharp. Whatever you ask yourself, your brain will try and answer. So, whatever you are doing, you need to ask yourself first what is your purpose in reading that article or doing that task. Asking questions means you are far less likely to be led by the updates and far more likely to keep track of what you want to know.
Third, taking regular breaks from social media gives you the wonderful opportunity to switch off and stay more in the present. The world is such a big place and trying to keep track of it all the time can be exhausting. Sometimes simply paying attention to what is going on in your life is more manageable and more rewarding.
Lastly, there are two specific challenges we face in curbing our use of social media. First, when we overuse, we often do so in order to feel more loved. The likes, favourites or hearts we get, they validate us and make us feel like people care. This helps us feel good. Second, social media is often a terrific cure for boredom.
The solution for both of these involves considering other ways to help us feel loved and conquer boredom. Contacting our friends and loved ones, reminding ourselves of all the people we are lucky to have in our lives and recalling past experiences where we have felt loved are all potential substitutes for posting. Furthermore, finding places online where we can learn a new subject, practicing mindfulness and meditation and allowing ourselves to purposefully daydream and goal set using our imagination are all ways to keep interested and overcome boredom.
Social Media is wonderful in plenty of ways and a big problem in others. The key is to make sure your brain is updating the latest software and apps so that you can use it in a way which works for you.
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