So Growing Up With the Internet Ruined Your Attention Span
Will Bamberg | Updated
If you’re like me, you realized one day that growing up with the internet completely destroyed your attention span. For all of their benefits, smart devices and social media have eroded our ability to focus and be present.
This problem is worse than just “using your phone too much”. It’s the overpowering, overriding need to feed your brain with digital instant gratification.
It’s staying up later than you wanted to night after night, and starting every day glued to your bed. It’s cycling endlessly through your social media apps. It’s the inexplicable urge to grab your phone during an episode of your favorite TV show. It’s watching yourself scroll and scroll and scroll, unable to break free and hating yourself for it.
It’s the feeling of being trapped in your own mind.
Your attention span is completely shot. Where do you go from here?
Fortunately, it’s possible to heal your attention span and change your behavior. I’ve struggled with compulsive internet use for years. At my lowest point, my nightly routine was to stay up watching YouTube videos until I passed out from sheer exhaustion, phone still playing in my hand. I still wrestle with my attention each day, but I’ve come a long way from being helplessly at its mercy.
This essay contains the ideas, framings, and specific tactics I use to work on my attention span and engage with my behavior. I hope it helps you spend more time on what matters most to you.
Frame the Problem
Rebuilding your attention span is a matter of behavior change. Changing your behavior requires taking an honest, open look at yourself. You need to embrace a learning mindset. The goal is to explore what you do and why you do it, so you can begin to shape both sides of the coin. In this section I outline the conceptual frames that have helped me to engage with my attention.
Attention is Time
Every moment of life you are paying attention: directing the spotlight of your consciousness onto something. Doing anything, from washing the dishes to watching a movie, requires paying attention for as long as it takes to do that thing. Your attention span is your capacity to intentionally convert time into some output. Your wounded attention span is really your wounded ability to control how you spend your time.
Your Body is Addicted to Dopamine
Billions of dollars have been spent making social media apps and algorithms as “engaging” as possible. Bright lights and saturated colors. Pings and vibrations and pop-ups and little red circles. These inputs fire straight into your brain, releasing tiny bursts of dopamine that make you want more, more. It’s digital junk food, pure instant gratification beamed through your eyeballs. Years of this dopamine diet have made you crave it. Your body has a real bad sweet tooth, and it knows how to get to the candy jar.
Young People Are Especially Vulnerable
This problem is especially acute for those of us who entered the social media era as children. The internet was part of the fabric of our adolescence. It affected how we learned to communicate and socialize, and shaped our developing identities. I’m part of the first wave of this generation: smartphones and social media exploded in popularity right before I entered middle school. Given how hard it’s been for me to turn my internet habits around, I worry younger people—born into the full-throttle attention economy—are even worse off.
Your Limited Attention Span Isn’t Your Fault
This is how unlimited internet access affects our brains. It conditions us to fill every empty moment with distraction and to entertain away discomfort. It’s a universal issue, a reality of growing up in the 21st century we didn’t choose and couldn’t have prepared for. Your attention span may be a problem, but it’s not one you created alone.
So when you can’t break free from your phone, don’t blame or shame yourself. It’s easy to think if only I were a better person, I wouldn’t have this problem. But that gives you too much credit! You’ve done nothing wrong here. You’re not a lazy piece of shit, you’re struggling with dopamine cravings masked as “random impulses”.
Be Compassionate to Yourself
Recognize how much of this is out of your control, and cut yourself some slack. You’re doing your best! The fact that this bothers you so much is proof you care. Resist the urge to self-abuse—you can’t beat yourself into growth. Be on your own team, and reflect that in your self-talk by encouraging instead of criticizing (this is hard, but does get easier with practice).
Attention Sinking is Often a Coping Mechanism
It’s escapism—stimulation that momentarily numbs us from other problems in our lives. I struggled with this in college, where I turned to mindless internet consumption to avoid the painful reality of being stuck in a major I was unhappy with. Be careful not to focus only on the visible symptoms without also exploring what’s driving you to cope. While you may need to work on your attention span, it may be just as important to unravel your relationship with school, or work, or fill-in-the-blank. Addressing these root causes not only lessens your need for escapism, but also gives you the emotional space to feel optimistic and empowered about seeking growth. Making peace with my major and building new sources of self-esteem directly enabled me to take on my attention span.
Self-observation is the foundation of behavior change. Through the lens of the inner observer you can trace the cause and effect of your thoughts and actions. This separates your behavior from the voice inside your head, making each easier to engage with. Self-observation lays the groundwork for future behavior change by increasing your self-awareness.
Keep an Eye Out for Your Limited Attention Span at Work
Self-observation is a mental muscle: it becomes stronger the more you exercise it. Mark impulses to check your phone at stupid times. Watch yourself reflexively tab over to social media. Notice how ridiculous it is that you just refreshed your feed three times in a row. It’s okay if you don’t stop yourself! Simply by seeing your attention span in action you become more aware of your behavior and strengthen your observer mind.
Terminology is Helpful for Recognizing Attention Events
An “attention sink” is anything hyper-engaging that will entrap you and steal your time. An “attention loop” is the state of being locked into an attention sink. Finally, I refer to the dopamine-craving, distraction-seeking part of my mind as my “rat brain”. Naming this voice helps me to externalize it (“my rat brain really wants to get on Twitter”) and to not self-abuse when I cave to it.
Realize How Your Attention Span is Hurting You
We all get at some level that this *waving hands at screen* is bad for us. That’s not enough. Face it directly. What important parts of your life are harmed by your attention span? Your hobbies? Your relationships? Your health? What do you say you want to do but can never make time for? It’s uncomfortable, but you need to be honest with yourself. You’re up against the might of the internet and the force of habit. Some discomfort may be required to light a fire under you.
Self-Awareness Enables Behavior Change
The insights this kind of introspection bring are crucial to changing your behavior. Until you can see the gears turning in your mind, it’s hard to feel agency over yourself. Similarly, seeing the interplay between your attention span and other aspects of your life is a key ingredient in motivating yourself to seek change. For me, reconciling the stories I was telling myself about the life I wanted with the reality of how I was spending my time was what spurred me to, well, figure out my shit.
Remember, learning mindset. Be curious, be inquisitive.
Changing Your Behavior
Behavior change is a skill that involves self-motivation and energy management. It’s important to spend your limited motivation and energy building lasting patterns of behavior rather than trying to hold back the tide of distraction. Approach this as a long term process: visualize laying groundwork for a better life.
Find Sustainable Sources of Motivation
Behavior change doesn’t happen overnight. You need positive, constructive sources of motivation to sustain you. The attention and time you reclaim from the clutches of the internet: what will you use it for? What feels out of reach right now? For me, some of these reasons were to spend more time on creative hobbies and projects like this website. Figure out what healing your attention span is a stepping stone toward, so you have something to strive for instead of against. “Don’t be so bad about social media” is a valid desire, but won’t fuel you through motivational slumps.
Learn Energy Management
Energy is the currency of behavior change. When you exert self-discipline to avoid a distraction impulse or stick to a habit, you spend energy. Your energy is finite. Monitor your sources of energy: food, water, and rest (self-observation again). When your energy is low, you can’t exert self-discipline, and your rat brain wins out. My worst attention loops typically happen in the afternoon when I haven’t eaten enough, and after nights of low sleep. Discover your unique energy and rest patterns. Adjust your lifestyle through trial and error. Proactivity goes a long way!
Spend Energy Wisely I: Minimize Self-Moderation
Self-moderation is exerting self-discipline to resist an impulse in the moment. While it is an ingredient of behavior change, self-moderation isn’t sustainable by itself. Distraction and temptation are endless—don’t drain all of your energy trying to hold back the ocean. You’ll end up spent, feeling awful for having failed. Pure self-moderation is treading water: eventually you’ll get tired and slip under the surface. Pick your battles.
Spend Energy Wisely II: Build Specific New Behaviors
Direct your energy constructively: build new habits and patterns of behavior. Think of these as mental scaffolding that helps you to conserve your limited energy. They’re the structure that keeps you afloat in the long run. You build habits by spending energy on them—exerting self-discipline—consistently over time until they become automatic (require minimal effort to keep). Without reinventing the wheel: be specific, set the bar low to start, and be wary of biting off more than you can chew (e.g. crashing out on four new habits and entering a Motivation Dark Age).
Big Picture: Playing the Long Game
It takes weeks and months of consistency to ingrain a new habit. Motivational slumps will come after the honeymoon period of starting the habit wears off. Expect them, talk yourself through them. Maintaining a sense of momentum is the key (this is why habit selection / picking your battles / setting the bar low are so important). Keep reminding yourself you’re working hard for something meaningful to you, and that it will get easier!
Visualize Laying Groundwork
The hardest part of behavior change is connecting your unsexy, uncomfortable day-to-day struggle to your life-level goals. I find it helpful to think of forming habits as “laying groundwork”. Imagining I’m laying bricks in a foundation of something greater—like a castle—helps me to connect the grunt work of pushing through motivational slumps to my broader goal of building a healthier, happier life. Be creative, find a framing that works for you.
What Habits Should You Build to Heal Your Attention Span?
Ask yourself: what do you wish you did more of? What would take you away from screens, and toward states of presence and flow? What are your attention weak points, and how can you strengthen them? What rules can you adopt to remove many decision points? How can you manipulate your environment to enable healthier behavior?
One useful approach is: raise the activation energy of attention sinking. Make it harder for your rat brain to act out. Make bad behavior more difficult for yourself.
In the next section I’ll explain the specific habits and tactics that have helped me to rebuild my attention span.
Habits and Tactics I’ve Used To Improve My Attention Span
Sleep is inseparable from your attention span. Bad sleep lowers your energy, making you more prone to attention sinking, and too much attention sinking puts you into a vicious cycle that ends up harming your sleep. Fixing your sleep is a Big Dog Problem (which is especially difficult to tackle if you’re on an irregular schedule like school). I recommend two sleep improvement tactics that are useful regardless of how much sleep you typically get.
Separate your phone from your bed at night (create a bedtime ritual). This is the most effective single lifestyle change I have ever made. It improves both your sleep and your mornings. Even if you still use your phone right up until you sleep, making yourself get up and plug it in across the room starts to create a “screens away” bedtime ritual. Later you can expand this ritual by adding more intermediate steps, such as brushing your teeth. In the morning, this stops you from waking and immediately grabbing your phone. Of course, there’s still the run-and-grab-phone-and-jump-back-into-bed problem (which I suffer from sometimes!). But that’s okay. It’s all about gradual improvement and making it harder for your rat brain.
Read as your last action before sleeping. Put your phone away, read, and sleep. Set the bar low: all you have to do is read a page (once you’ve started, you’ll usually end up reading more anyway). This works because it's attainable to stick to—no matter how late you’re up, 5 more minutes isn’t going to make a real difference in how rested you are tomorrow. This habit combines excellently with the phone separation and bedtime ritual habit.
Low-hanging sleep improvement fruit: use night mode and download fl.ux
Fighting The Lure of Screens
Physically separate yourself from devices. You can’t get distracted by a device you don’t have! Removing your phone from your bed is one example of this. A tactic I use frequently when I need to work but am struggling to engage is to go somewhere without my phone. If I’m staying home, I’ll try to put it in another room or inside my desk. At minimum, keep it out of sight and off of your person. Make your rat brain have to work harder to get to your phone than just reaching into your pocket.
Erect fences: remove apps, block sites, use screen timers. One of the best ways to reduce attention sinking and self-moderation is removing access. If you can, identify the app least important to you and drop it. Another effective tactic is to remove the phone app, but still allow yourself to use the desktop client. I did this with Twitter (pretty effective) and Reddit (less effective because I keep using the mobile site… work in progress). Screen timers and content blockers are useful but can be hazardous without external accountability. I currently have several screen timers but am in the habit of extending them willy-nilly. Ugh…
Use physical lists to decouple organization from devices. I love digital organization. I use Notion, Apple notes, and Obsidian to track my life, organize projects, and take notes. But digital organization can be dangerous, because it places your organization right next to your attention sinks. I’ve discovered that my daily to-do list is best suited to a physical piece of paper. It sits in plain view, I can use it while my phone is away, and the act of rewriting the list helps me to reset my mind to a blank slate.
In Your Head
Create rules, trick your mind. A rule is a behavioral fence limiting the conditions in which you do things. Rules are decisions that remove many other decisions (minimizing self-moderation). Reading right before sleep and separating your phone from your bed are rules. Another rule I recommend for building self-discipline is The Two Minute Rule, which helps you spend less energy on small tasks. Rules require self-discipline to establish like any habit, but can be useful tools for behavior change.
Your brain doesn’t work logically—you can use rules to trick your mind into good behavior by giving yourself permission to do the “bad thing” within limits. For example: “I can use TikTok as much as I want, but I can’t do it in bed”. Alternatively, you can use something you want as a carrot to incentivize sticking to a habit, e.g. “I can play unlimited video games as long as I exercise first”. Experiment with creative ways to leverage the things you enjoy doing.
Break loops by diverting yourself with radical change. When you realize you’re stuck in an attention loop, your best chance at escaping is disruption. Your rat brain has locked you out of the engine, so you need to derail the train somehow. Rapid fire:
- Physical disruption: throw phone onto bed, run into another room
- Temperature/sensory shock: hot or cold shower
- Physical activity: go for a walk, do some push-ups, other exercise
- Vocalization: Literally start talking. “Oh god I’m stuck on my phone, ughhhh I would really like to not be stuck on my phone, how can I get myself out of this loop? I guess I could go into the kitchen for a snack...” Talking to yourself is a legitimate way to reassert control over your mind and keep your rat brain out of the driver’s seat.
Invest blocks of time. It’s easier to avoid distraction when you establish up front exactly how long you want to do something. Want to spend an hour studying, or writing, or practicing? State it out loud. Commit to it mentally. Reinforce your decision by writing it on a piece of paper that sits in front of you. Set a one-hour timer. Put your phone in the other room. Calendars can be very effective for intentionally blocking out time like this (I’m not quite there yet myself, but I’d like to be).
Repair Your Attention Span and Regain Control of Your Time
The same technologies that connect us and put the world at our fingertips also bind and enthrall us. In stealing our attention, the internet robs us of our time. Our wounded attention spans keep us from living intentionally and engaging with what’s most important to us.
Luckily, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Through self-observation, you can examine your built-up patterns of engaging with technology. Awareness of your behavior and how it connects to your life as a whole brings the clarity needed to engage with it. With constructive goals to sustain you, you can use framing and habit building to change your behavior, heal your attention span, and reclaim your time.
Make no mistake, this is a difficult journey. It’s hard to sift through your mind, and uncomfortable to question the stories you tell yourself. It takes effort and persistence, day after day. Advice can only take you so far: ultimately you have to do the work of exploring your own mental landscape. You have to take your own uncertain steps forward. A cruel irony is that diving into attention sinks is a prime method of avoiding this kind of work!
The good news is behavior change is a skill. Framing, self-observation, energy management, building habits, disrupting attention loops—they’re all skills. Like all skills, you can learn and get better at them through practice. They're all connected; improving in one will help you with the others. As long as you keep picking yourself back up when you fall, you will make progress.
The great news is, behavior change is the lever of personal growth across all areas of life. These skills compound: improve at them enough and you enter a positive feedback loop of growth. Once you feel empowered to use your day-to-day experience to change your life, anything is possible. Learning how to engage with my own mind and behavior has opened up the world to me. I hope it does the same for you.