Take Back Your Attention, Your Year, and Your Life

As I write this, it’s mid-December 2019, and I turned 43 this week.

The average American male lives to the age of 76. Statistically speaking, I’m past the halftime show of my life. If this mortal coil I’m shuffling along were a World Cup soccer game, I’d already be six minutes into the second half, with thirty-nine minutes to go. Sure, the big referee in the sky might add a little extra stoppage time for me, but it’s just as likely the game will end early due to bad weather.

I think about death all the time.

My mortality is like a little kid tugging at my sleeve insistently, until I eventually look down at him. This awareness of my fragility used to feel like a curse. It would sometimes depress me. It would almost always make me anxious. I’d feel something uncomfortable in my body and scour WebMD for the most benign explanation. Of course, I’d wind up focusing on the most dire explanation, instead.

Whoops.

I don’t regret my depressed and anxious years. I had to have them in order to get tired of them, and I had to get tired of them in order to trade them in for something better. I haven’t glanced at WebMD in years. However, mortality has continued to tug at my sleeve: “Daddy. Daddy. Daddy. Lookit. Daddy. Lookit. Daddy. Daddy. Lookit.” I hear him when I look in the mirror. The circles under my eyes used to go away with a good night’s sleep. Now, they seem to be here for good. Most of my hair is gone for good, and most of what’s left has gone gray.

If life is a soccer game, mine is looking more and more like a senior league.

In recent years, when mortality has tugged at my sleeve, instead of getting depressed or anxious, I’ve gotten active. I’ve tried to make the most of my dwindling days by getting the most out of them. I’ve worked hard and I’ve played hard. I certainly don’t regret these generative years, either. They’ve produced a lot of good things. However, with only thirty-nine minutes left in the game of my life, I’m increasingly aware they’ve produced at least one troubling thing.

Over the last decade, my most valuable resource has been fractured.

This resource is like a tract of land within me that has been subdivided over and over again, with each subplot given away to the cleverest bidder. Indeed, in most cases, I pay these settlers to live on my land. Every morning, I invite them back in, giving up the space within me bit by bit all over again.

It starts with my alarm clock.

Back in the first half of my life, when my alarm went off, I slapped the biggest button on it, and I fell back to sleep for another nine minutes. Now, when my alarm clock goes off, I pick it up, swipe up, and give up the first few moments of my day—and my most valuable resource—to a dozen different icons on the screen. This resource I’m speaking of, this land within me, this space on the inside, it has a name.

It is my attention.

With only thirty-nine minutes left, my most valuable resource is the attention I have to give to those minutes, to what’s going on inside of me, to the teammates who are right here on the field with me, to my analog life itself, with its complicated mixture of joy and sorrow, conflict and harmony, clarity and confusion, victory and defeat. In the end, I’ll wish for more time but, even more so, I’ll wish I’d paid more attention to the time I had. So, as a birthday gift to myself, I awoke early, before anyone else. I planned to sit quietly with a cup of coffee and enjoy the lighted Christmas tree in the darkest hour before dawn.

An hour later, I’d picked up my phone twelve times.

I’d divided my attention and given it away to two social media sites, a news app, text messaging, my to-do list, a weather app, Google, YouTube, and my calendar. The attention I could have given to myself, I gave to Silicon Valley. The attention I could have given to the moment, I gave to ones and zeros. The attention I could have given to my life, I gave to my device.

In 2020, it’s not going to get easier to claim for myself this land called attention within me.

Digital media is becoming increasingly clever at harvesting its most valuable commodity: human attention. The space within me is worth a lot of dollars to the programmers and marketers and advertisers who are designing these technologies. They are getting better and better at getting our attention by scaring us and angering us and entertaining us. A year from now—when I only have thirty-seven minutes or so left in the game—how much of my attention will I have traded for fear and rage and memes, how much more of the game will I have missed?

This year, my New Year’s resolution is not to make the most of my time. It’s to take back most of my attention, so that, to paraphrase Thoreau, when I come to die, I will not discover that I have not noticed my life. I invite you to join me. Take back the land within you. Take back your attention. Take back your year.

Take back your life.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.