The “Endless Present” and the War for Our Attention

Who would have thought that so much would happen on July 12, 2022? Between the astounding deep space images NASA is releasing from the James Webb Space Telescope, the seventh public hearing from the January 6th Committee into last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, the funeral of Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, protests in Sri Lanka resulting in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing the country on a military jet, the announcement of the eight contenders to replace Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister, the Emmy Award nominations, and so much more, there is no shortage of draws for attention today. And yet… today is just business as usual in the 21st century. Visiting a news site, turning on your TV – or even just checking your email – is a reminder that there is always a lot going on. There are always a huge number of things, all around the world, to which we could be paying attention. Very little of what we could pay attention to is truly relevant for our lives, or the things we believe we want to be spending our lives on.

Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals discusses a prime example of how willing we are to give our attention away – in April 2016, two Buzzfeed reporters livestreamed themselves wrapping elastic bands around a watermelon to see how many it would take before the watermelon burst. Over the course of 45 minutes, approximately 3 million people around the world watched the live stream. 3 million people who woke up that day with no plans to spend 45 minutes watching people wrap elastic bands around a watermelon. So why do we give our attention so freely? Is it because we’re bored? We don’t have enough things we want to do?

Critic James Duesterberg suggests that this isn’t the case at all in his article “Killing Time.” He suggests that we offer our attention freely in this way because it’s ours to give, and that doing so is a way of making our own choice “with no limits.” Many of us work hard and then stay up late at night, trading sleep for the freedom of ‘play time’ despite knowing we’ll pay for it the next day – a phenomenon given the term “revenge bedtime procrastination” by sleep experts. Similarly, Duesterberg says we give our attention to any and everything we find interesting online because “This is a realm in which space doesn’t matter and time spreads out into an endless present—a video game played in a psychic basement, an endless quest for life power and gold coins.”

We’ll spend more time looking at time and attention in future articles, but for now, how might we be more conscious of how we give our attention this week?

This Week’s Tips:

Notice where you give your attention this week, and consider your choices:

  1. Pay attention to your attention. Reflect back over the last hour, or last section of your day. Where have you given your attention? If this is a hard question to answer – or if you need more information – look back at your web browser history, or other documentation. As you reflect, did anything surprise you about where you gave your attention? How reliable is your memory for how you spent your time?
  2. Where do you want to be giving your attention? Which people – at work or elsewhere – would you like to be giving more attention to? Consider those who might not even be on your radar (ask for thoughts from others if you can’t think who’s not on your radar). Which projects would you like to be giving more attention to? Again, consider those projects that might not even be on your radar.
  3. What actions could you take to support giving your attention where you’d like to give it? For many people, deleting social media apps from your phone is a huge help. Your actions may be something totally different. If you’re not sure, ask others you trust for their thoughts.

Try these out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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