What We Focus On Determines Our Reality

Published: 2022-12-17

In Yuval Noah Harrari's book Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow he writes that in our modern mass media digital, having real power means knowing what not to give our attention to. Historically having power meant having access to information, but today having power means knowing what information should be ignored and what is worth directing our focus on. There is so much noise going on in the world that's constantly trying to grab at our attention that distracts us from what's really important. Recognizing and understanding that we are a product of what we pay attention to and knowing how to filter out the noise, the more power and control we will have over our lives.

Consider the type of mental world you construct for yourself when you dedicate significant time to deep, meaningful, enriching, and healthy endeavors. What would your personal world be like when you take the time to exercise five times a week, make it a point to read a book every evening before bed, explore meditation, or dedicate time to a hobby. Now consider the type of mental world constructed when you mindlessly scroll through a social media or news feed, or spending most of your non-working hours playing video games or binge-watching streaming services like Netflix or YouTube.

Someone who spends a significant amount of their time on a social media platform or news feeds will likely have a warped perspective of the world. Since the proliferation of social media, people have become absorbed in the 24-hour news cycle and hyper-partisan politics, and it's not surprising that all three feed into each other. Every big news story seems to drive people to tribalism, reducing complex issues to in-groups and out-groups - an "us vs them" mentality, where the information-consumer slips into a perpetual state of anxiety, anger, fear, outrage, distrust, paranoia, and hatred. The in-group ("us") are the morally superior group that knows how the world really is, where resharing something on social media is somewhere between "activism" and gods work. The out-group ("them") are immoral, evil, foolish, and want to destroy "us" and everything we stand for. Constantly exposing yourself to this type of information can only shape your mind for the worse.

The metaphor that 'you are what you eat' is holds true literally and metaphorically in that you also are what you feed you mind. Spending a significant portion of your free time online watching YouTube videos or playing video games is not much different from a diet consisting a fast food. Once you recognize that you've been on a steady diet of information junk food, building a better information diet is more helpful. Maybe it's time to turn off the news, uninstall the social media apps from your phone, and perhaps deleting your social media accounts entirely (which is something I advocate for). Unfortunately, most people are too afraid that they would miss something if they got rid of social media, the news, and so forth. However, speaking from personal experience, cutting out social media and 99% of "the news" has done wonders for my mental well-being. It's reduced my overall day-to-day anxiety, freed up more time for hobbies and interests, made me more energetic, and I've noticed my ability to focus has improved significantly.

Although it doesn't have the same effects as social media, modern video games are designed to get you hooked as well, spending an inordinate amount of time playing. That isn't to say I don't enjoy playing a video game every now and then, but I'll sometimes find myself in a pattern where I'll play a video game and it soaks up all of my free time when I could be dedicating some time to a hobby or personal development like fitness or reading. Most people already understand this, but video games will not provide any sort of personal improvement. In fact, the origins of this website started when I decided to cut out videos games for a while.

To avoid sounding like an anti-fun douche, I'll say that lower quality activities like video games and watching TV aren't necessarily bad in themselves (at least to me). These experiences are fine and enjoyable in moderation but I think that that higher quality activities like reading, writing, exercising, pursing a hobby, etc should account for more of our time than the lower quality activities like media consumption. If I want to improve myself, I should begin by critically looking at what activities I spend time doing and remove something before adding something new. I think that most people today are spending far too much time consuming rather than creating.

I don't write this to come off as I'm better than anyone else or to give off a "holier than thou" attitude, because the fact of the matter is that I've also spent far more amount of time on social media and on other digital activities than I'd care to admit. It wasn't until I became consciously aware of how irritable I'd get after spending time scrolling through a social media feed or realizing how distracted I generally was when I should have been focusing on something more important. I am by no means perfect now as I sometimes find myself spending more time watching TV than I do reading books (which in recent years I rediscovered is something I thoroughly enjoy and that I benefit a great deal from). This essay is really directed at a younger version of myself. We are a product of what they pay attention to, and we see the world through this lens. Our personal world is an outcome of what we spend our time directing our focus on.

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