What is an Attention Collection?
A few tips for growing our attention
David Dark in his book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious suggests we all have and need attention collections. What is an attention collection? Dark said in an interview:
“That we all have songs, memories, anecdotes, maybe books, maybe films, that we treasure for good reason, because they either articulate pain, longing, confusion, hope, that we have yet to find a better articulation for. It could be anything. It could be a line from a commercial. Part of what I’m trying to do with the book is to get folks to both take stock, level with themselves concerning what’s in there (heart, mind, imagination), and be a little less sheepish in owning what’s in there… By arguing that we all have attention collections, and that we’d all do well to talk about them, to be a little less prone to call them “guilty pleasures” as if that’s all there is to say about my love for Walking Dead—I’m trying to get people to be quicker to note that their love for a particular show, song, artist, is valid and information-laden in a therapeutic way, because I think life’s too short to pretend we’re not devoted to things.”
Our attention collections are varied and wide in scope. We have songs, quotes, books, films, shows, experiences, prayers, Scripture, and relationships that have shaped our lives. We're drawn to these cultural artifacts and relationships and come back to them often for a variety of reasons. Often mysterious reasons. Many times our inclinations, like Dark says, are because of pain, longing, confusion, hope, and I’ll even add joy.
What if we stopped dismissing our love of Breaking Bad as a “guilty pleasure,” and an escape from a hard day at work? Yes, it could be these things. Although the millions of people who have watched the series… multiple times… might suggest otherwise. Perhaps our enjoyment of Breaking Bad is addressing a longing, hope, or something else lurking in our souls? What if the show is speaking to us?
I believe the Spirit speaks in mysterious ways because everything belongs to the Lord. Spirit has no boundaries and blows as it pleases. Grace isn’t reserved for a select few. Many cultural artifacts are teeming with hints of hope.
You don’t have to come to my same conclusions regarded God, but it’s obvious a lot more is going on in the waters of art, media, and culture. This also doesn’t mean every piece of our attention collection is good for our souls, and will bring life, and some things can do more harm than good. Tread wisely.
Not all cultural artifacts are created equal, but like Wendell Berry said about place:
“There are no un-sacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”
Our problem as humans is discerning between the two.
So what if we got intentional about our attention collections? Maybe started one for the first time? What if instead of dismissing the art, poetry, books, films, sacred texts, and shows we love and enjoy as mere entertainment, or time fillers on a snowy day, and saw them instead as points of contact for understanding ourselves, God, and the world? What if we arranged these fragments of attention to see what sticks?
Here is how I go about crafting my attention collection. Maybe some of these simple ideas will get you started with your own:
1. Digital tools/apps.
I use a simple app called Feedly. This tool allows for collecting RSS feeds from websites, blogs, etc. My Feedly tool gives control of what I take in. Instead of searching random sites, doom-scrolling, endless time surfing the web, or going down the rabbit holes of ancient pottery and the Civil Rights Movements, I have everything in one place. I’m in control of what I consume, and what I pay attention to.
A nice minor feature is tags you can use to organize your feeds by category or theme. A godsend when I’m writing a book or blog post and need to check research later.
So once a day, I peruse my Feedly app and explore a variety of RSS feeds: art, spirituality, culture, technology, sports, film, politics, and other social causes. Whenever I find something worth my attention, I save the article, or highlight a quote, etc.
I typically save stuff in another app called Instapaper. It makes it easy to save links, websites, and other digital media from your desktop or phone.
I then determine what items in my collection need further exploration. It may inspire a blog post, or find its way in a sermon, or teaching, book idea, or something I just enjoy for what it is.
2. Stay off social media for long periods of time.
I spend little time on the socials because it doesn’t help with attention, or building an attention collection, or building a kind and patient and loving soul. There was a time when Twitter shared many interesting articles. Now it’s just angry people, well, being angry.
The socials are a time suck for two other reasons. 1. They are too algorithm dependent and what you see is random. Algorithms aren’t smarter than you. You should see what you want to see. 2. Socials are entertainment. Let’s not pretend they are essential to our existence and connection. Limited time on anything is warranted. More time for attention on things that matter. Check out Cal Newport on why social is not essential for life.
3. Choose your news wisely.
I only read one or two news sites a few times per week. I have limited news sites on my Feedly app. News is no longer journalism and only entertainment and propaganda. News outlets like anything else in our modern digital age need clicks to survive. This means they often share things for making money and spinning things to get you coming back and little else.
There are a couple of places in the digital wilderness worth considering. Axios has a nice daily email with bullet points of the latest news with little comment. You then have the choice to explore further if desired. Here is Axios’ mission page.
News outlets like the Economist are middle of the road and not prone to sell info-tainment, and try to tell stories with little biased commentary. They say they aren’t left or right. An excellent resource. But you can decide for yourself.
I’ve also enjoyed 1440 for daily news. They send a daily email with bullet points of major news. You can decide what to read or explore further. No slant or taking sides.
One more thing. My friend says we should read the news, not watch it. Why? You get manipulated by videos and emotions when people speak. Text takes some of the emotion out of the news. I agree.
No outlet is perfect and all will have their angles. But try not to get too lost in the 24-7 news cycle. Reading news a few times a week is plenty. And if you are reading stuff that is arguments for a particular political side, mix up your diet of news. Spend your attention elsewhere.
4. Streaming: “My Watch List.”
Most streaming services have a way to create a personalized watch list. I use this list religiously, so I don’t spend absorbent amounts of time just searching streaming services for something to watch. I am intentional about the shows and films I watch and they always serve a purpose.
If a friend or website recommends something, it goes on the list. If I think of a film, show, or documentary from the past, I’d like to revisit on the list. Sometimes I won’t get to something for months or years after going on the list. I prefer it this way, as you don’t get sucked into the immediacy of the hype and moment.
Create a watch list to add to your attention collection. These might be films in another era to help understand historical moments. The AFI top 100 films are a wonderful resource to add to your watch list, too.
Build out your list with shows that speak to that longing of redemption and hope, like Ted Lasso. You do you. But once you have a list and decide to watch something, you don’t have to waste time searching thousands of pieces of content on your streaming platform.
4. Walk, ride, and drive.
I love to walk my city. You see a lot more on your feet, and/or on your bike (another one of my favorites). I also like to drive through different parts of the city just to notice things. Typically, these are areas of the city I don’t normally visit because they are out of the way from my normal daily habits.
Of course, when you travel, try to walk and bike around the area to find new things for your collection. Attention collections aren’t just digital pieces of media. They are people, places, foods, sights, and sounds.
5. Paper, notebook, pen, and computer.
I’m always writing quotes, phrases, and ideas either in a notebook, on my phone, or computer. Whatever you stumble across, make note of it. I also like to snap pictures on my phone of birds, signs, and interesting things I see in the world.
Digital or paper. Doesn’t matter. Document things, everything. Add to the collection.
You don’t have to, but my blog (Substack) is essentially an extension of my attention collection. I document quotes, books, videos, music, thoughts, and ideas I find interesting on my digital real estate. Things that speak to me. Perhaps things that might speak to others.
You don’t have to blog, but having your own web domain creates a digital playground done on your terms. Don’t rely on social media or other sites to build your attention collection and to share your stuff. The algorithms are a joke and evolve and social sites are not forever… remember My Space? You can set up a free site, or for a few bucks a month, have a place to collect and share.
I would tend to your own digital garden.
The attention collection is about documenting what speaks to you. Not only what speaks to you, but also what you find helpful for others. The likelihood of what speaks to you will speak to others because we’re all cut from the same cloth.
Let’s stop pretending these cultural artifacts we enjoy are merely entertainment and nothing else. We all need to stop pretending we aren’t religious. These items in our collection are often full of hope and grace, more than we know.
Go build your attention collection today, and be amazed at what you might find.
Share in the comments what you find.