Pay Attention To What You Are Paying Attention To
We live in an attention economy. Put simply, this means that organizations have realized that our attention is a valuable commodity.
The inventor of the online game Wordle demonstrated this in 2022. The game can only be played once per day and can be completed in less than ten minutes. Yet, that ten minutes of our daily engrossment was enough to turn the inventor into a millionaire when the New York Times purchased the game to capture that small piece of our attention.
This is not a new idea. The serpent attracted Eve’s awareness with delusions of grandeur. Absalom spent a great deal of time winning people’s attention on the way through the gates of Jerusalem. Jesus sought people’s regard with acts of kindness and words of hope. Yet, with the invention of the radio, video and smartphones, there has never been a time in our history when people have been so effective at and so desperate to captivate our attention.
There are countless things to look at and to listen to.
What they Know About You
Tremendous research, planning, and energy is expended to design diverse ways to capture our attention. Some people want to turn our awareness into money by selling our information to advertisers. Others want to capture our attention and turn it into support for a cause or votes in an election. The problem they all face is that the market is saturated with groups jostling for our interest. There are countless things to look at and to listen to. Yet, our time to be attentive is a limited resource, and we only have so many minutes each day.
Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix in 2017, effectively described the pursuit of our attention when he announced that Netflix’s biggest competitor was sleep.1 As a result, organizations must work harder and harder to grab our notice. Often, they do so by delivering what the flesh wants. They produce content that is more engaging, more controversial, more immoral, more violent, and more divisive. This is not good news for followers of Christ!
But it gets worse. Coupled with our culture’s insatiable drive to capture our attention is our “infinite appetite for distraction.”2 We are subtly drawn to these seductive diversions. Whether it is sports events, gaming, social media, streaming services, news, or politics, we tend to immerse ourselves in them. They appeal to the flesh. We have very little concern with handing over our most precious commodity in exchange for a few more hours of “zoning out.” We pay with our attention.
And if that is not bad enough, many recent secular articles and books warn us that we need to pay attention to what we pay attention to. They point to the dramatic increase in anxiety and depression as an urgent reminder that what we are engrossed in sets the trajectory for the rest of our lives. Epictetus, a Greek stoic philosopher, once astutely observed, “You become what you give your attention to.”
“Doom-scrolling” is one example of this. This is the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.3 When we “doom-scroll,’ we end up being more negative, cynical, anxious, and depressed. When we spend our time scrolling through social media to look at the glamorous, yet often fabricated, silver of the lives of our friends, we end up feeling dissatisfied and resentful. When we immerse ourselves in the online world of divisive issues, we end up feeling suspicious, angry and hardened toward others.
If the impacts of an attention economy trouble the secular world, just consider the devastation this wreaks on Bible believers. The repercussions of living in this environment are twofold. The first is an issue of content, and the second is of saturation. Let’s deal with content first.
If what we pay attention to shapes who we are, and where we are going, then what happens when we immerse ourselves in material that was created by the flesh for the flesh? Inspired writers have provided us with the answer. After the author of Psalm 115 describes the futility of idols, we are warned that those who give their attention to such things will become like them: “Those who make them [idols] become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Psa 115:8 ESV).
We become like the things we invest our time on. Paul also warned Timothy of this natural progression:
I would argue that the majority of the content created to seize our attention fits into Paul’s inspired description of the last days. Our society is becoming precisely what it concentrates on. In Colossians, before Paul outlines the differences between the sons of disobedience and the elect of God, he highlighted a crucial tool to guide us down the right path. He instructs us to: “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Col 3:2 NKJV).
The greatest warnings and instructions come from our Lord Jesus. In Matthew, he teaches us about the significance of what we pay attention to:
We know that Jesus’ teachings here go much deeper than just attention. But at this simple level, we find a profound truth that compels us to be vigilant about what we attend to. If we focus on those things which are “light,” our body will be filled with light, but if “darkness,” we will be filled with darkness.
Therefore, if we are trying to become a new man or new woman in Christ, we must pay attention to the content we heed.
The second issue we must deal with is saturation. The desperate desire for our attention linked with the ever-present smartphone technology leaves us very susceptible to willingly hand over every second of our daily quota of attention. What effect does this level of distraction have on our ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships with others and with our God? Emmy-winning American reporter Kare Anderson wrote, “Giving undivided attention is the first and most basic ingredient in any relationship.”4
If we are unwilling or losing the ability to give our attention to reading, reflection, meditation, and prayer, then it becomes an impossible task to build a relationship with our Heavenly Father. The writer of Hebrews tells us very clearly, “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (Heb 2:1 NIV).
Drifting away does not happen by accident.
Drifting away recalls ships at sea that have lost their power and their direction. Drifting away takes no effort at all. It occurs when we do not attend to the path we had set out on and the direction we intended to travel. It occurs in relationships when we stop regarding the other person. “We drifted apart” is a common phrase. But, make no mistake, drifting away does not happen by accident. It occurs when we willingly neglect to do those things that would have kept us on the right path.
We do not accidentally neglect to read our Bibles and pray to our God or meditate on His character. We willingly decide to give our attention to other things throughout the day. We neglect the spiritual disciplines that will maintain and build our relationship with Him and His son. Drifting is easy. Discipline takes effort.
So, what should we do about this predicament? The answer to this question comes in two parts. The first requires us to gain an awareness of what we give our attention to and how much time it consumes. The second requires that we purposefully establish disciplines that will redirect that time and attention to our Heavenly Father and His Son.
I suggest that you purchase a journal and document your intentions. This will make your journey more purpose-driven and demonstrate your willingness to be disciplined. Whenever someone wants to make a change, a good starting point is to identify the behavior that is being targeted. It can be enormously powerful to actively describe the behaviors you want to transform, the vision you have for yourself, and the reasons behind it.
The next step is to monitor and record what you are paying attention to, and how long you spend on it. You may also want to record how you feel (mentally and physically) before and after you paid attention to something. After you analyze your findings, you should be able to target times during the day when you could alter the content you are taking in.
I have personally found it extremely helpful to develop a reading, prayer, or meditation project5 to transfer my attention from worldly things to spiritual things. I usually set a bracket of time for each project. This helps me maintain a focus on the project and creates excitement around developing new activities. Once again, the time is more meaningful and rewarding if I write things down. Here is a brief list of ideas:
Read a parable, Psalm or Proverb a day–note three ideas that caught your attention.
- Make a prayer list.
- Keep a gratitude journal.
- Go for a daily prayer and meditation walk.
- Meet regularly with a friend to discuss your journey, hopes and struggles.
- Establish a fast—it can be from food or media, for an hour, half-day, or full-day.
- Listen to a Christadelphian podcast or online Christadelphian music.
- Finally, we need to let the word of God be our great motivator. One of the most encouraging verses of the Bible is found in Malachi:
This verse is encouraging because it tells us the LORD is attentive to those who give Him their focus. He lets us know that those who do so are being set apart in a book of remembrance. It also reminds us how important it is to devote our attention to His name and all it encompasses.
The LORD is attentive to those who give Him their focus.
If indeed we gradually become like the things we pay attention to, we may be deeply alarmed when we discover we are concentrating on the things of this world. If, however, we are paying attention to our Heavenly Father, His word, and His son, we can be deeply encouraged. In John’s epistle, he assures us: “But we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him.” (1 John 3:2 NASB).
So, let’s pay attention to what we pay attention to and take to heart what Paul reveals to us in Romans:
(Ottawa Ecclesia, ON)
1 Hern, Alex. “Netflix’s biggest competitor? Sleep.” The Guardian, April 18, 2017.
2 Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World Revisited. New York: Harper, 1958. p35.
3 Merriam-Webster.com. “Doomsurfing.” Accessed October 28, 2022. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/doomsurfing-doomscrolling-words-were-watching.
4 Anderson, Kare. “What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life.” Harvard Business Review, June 5, 2012.
5 These projects should be in addition to our daily readings and prayers, which should be considered a bare minimum.