in Life Optimization

Who are you paying with your attention?


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In business, it’s been a foregone truth that companies want your money. Multiple competitors fighting over each other in order to win your purchase of their slightly different product has been the standard since the time of the robber barons. Whether it’s Microsoft vs Apple, Smirnoff vs Captain Morgan, or Tide vs Clorox, consumers look to fulfill a specific need and companies fight to win that dollar from their competitors.

These may still be true in certain industries, but on your smartphone today, it is no longer the case. Rather, all the successful app companies are now competing for an even more valuable resource – your attention. Instead of identifying consumers with a buy order and fighting to win it, apps identify anyone with a smartphone as user and fight to win a slice of their day, knowing thats their best bet towards monetization later on. “Paying attention” has become a literal phrase.

It began in earnest with Angry Birds, that harmless time wasting juggernaut which has since partnered with behemoths like Lucasfilm and Hasbro and expanded into every corner of the entertainment business. Rovio may not have had such domination mapped out at the beginning, but they knew that if they could consistently draw eyeballs to their app on a regular basis, things would happen. People would become addicted, and possibly willing to spend another 99 cents on in app purchases, an expansion pack, or a Red Bird plushie. All they had to do was make sure that Angry Birds was the app you would tap first when you found yourself with a few extra minutes at the bus stop.

It is these times that are now the bread and butter of any app company. When you’re waiting in line, bored in class, stuck in a vehicle, or just need a quick break from work. It’s the bits and piece of our day where we have nothing to do, but not so much time that we can start a whole new activity.

Out comes the smartphone, as we reach for something interesting, but not so interesting that we can’t put it down once the bus arrives. You could play a game like Angry Birds or Clash of Clans; check up on Facebook or Instagram; mindlessly swipe some dates in Tinder or OkCupid, or send a Snapchat to let others know how bored you are. (I spoke with an associate recently who proudly defended his impressive number of hours logged on Clash of Clans as harmless “I only play it on the toilet”)

That’s what the next big app will be – not the one that is the best at monetizing or providing the wow factor, but the one that you reach for first when you sit down in the bathroom.

Then comes the backlash about how these mindless moments have been rewiring our brains for instant gratification, leaving us unable to focus or hold a conversation anymore. They’re absolutely right, and we should make sure that we still find time for ourselves to enjoy non digital past times. But that point has already been made – instead here I wish to illuminate the connection between toilet time and the bottom line. Mindfulness rather than abstention.

Think about which apps you reflexively reach for first when you’re bored. Now think about who is on the other side of the screen, reaping the benefits of you attention. Today it is your time that is prized, rather than your dollar, and thus you should be aware of where your most valuable resource is going. Is it a business or value that you’d like to see flourish? Vote with your taps.

With this in mind, I have scaled back my use of Tinder in favor of Okcupid’s mobile app, because it does a better job of delivering the desired end result. I have moved from Spotify to Soundcloud, in order to receive the same commodity but for free. And I have phased out all games from my phone, preferring to spend my down time moments logging my daily thoughts and actions in the Notes app.

Most importantly, I have disabled all push notifications except the actionable ones like texts or Maps instructions. Otherwise my days turn into never ending requests from faceless companies pleading for me to open them again, with sticky sweet temptations like “New match found”, “New friend added”, or the worst – time sensitive deadlines urging me to “check now or miss out on today’s deal”!

These decisions all favor the service which does a better job of delivering what I want, so I cannot say that I evaluated the companies’ mission statement or recent campaign donations to determine the winner. But I did take a step back and notice which mindless app would distract me best at that moment, and purposefully chose to give my attention towards the contender leading to a more worthy outcome.

I suggest for you to do the same, and be mindful of who you are supporting with your moments of downtime. Be as stringent with your attention as you are with your dollars. You are paying somebody with it, after all.

Also posted on Linkedin