Your attention is a limited resource that you’re probably giving away far too easily these days. Similar to financial capital, the ones who allocate their attention strategically usually improve their odds of getting a better return on investment in themselves. I was reminded of this when I visited Dubai’s world-famous souks.
Nestled along one end of the Dubai Creek in Deira, is a cluster of old souks (traditional Arab marketplaces) that are a hive of activity. Its vendors hawk all manner of wares from gold, spices, perfumes, and hand-woven textiles, to other less exotic Arabic housewares.
The crowd— tourists traveling from far and wide soaking in the sights and sounds of what a traditional Arabian bazaar might have looked like in the time of “1001 Arabian Nights” and before the discovery of oil which, of course, forever changed Dubai’s fortunes and landscape.
Except, any semblance of Arabic tradition is all but drowned out by the cacophony of vendors’ cries for “THE HUSTLE” — to make that quick sale to any unsuspecting tourist brave enough to walk, nay, venture a glance their way.
The first thing that grabs your attention isn’t actually the items that are on display, rather, it’s the way the vendors call out to you, beckoning you to inspect their wares or step into their “web”. The more aggressive vendors even tug at your arm, physically corralling you into their stores.
Once the vendors have your attention, that’s where the selling begins. Even if you didn’t think you needed anything before you entered their “domain”, it doesn’t stop them from convincing you that you do.
Vendor: “This Persian silk scarf is one of a kind.”
Me: “I don’t need one.”
“Buy it for your girlfriend.”
“I don’t have one.” (Though truth be told, I did)
“Buy it for your mom then.”
“My mom is allergic to silk.” (Though she really isn’t)
“How about a relative?”
You get the idea.
Getting into a store is the easy part. Leaving it however is another story. Sensing you’re about to leave, vendors immediately direct your attention to anything else they sense might interest you, hoping to get you to linger just long enough for them to close in for “the kill.”
Some even try to emotionally blackmail you into buying something, anything as compensation for the time they “invested” in you.
This charade plays out at a couple of more stores and before you know it you’ve run out of time, energy and (uh-oh) money!
By the end of this exhausting experience, you conclude — if only I had paid more attention to my actual wants, needs, and desires, I wouldn’t have gotten hoodwinked into buying a bunch of useless fluff.
Is your daily life one big souk-y experience?
Many of us live our lives as if we’re wide-eyed tourists being lured into Arabian souks against our better judgment. We wander around aimlessly each day, allowing strangers to tell us what we should be paying attention to, where to focus our energies and how to spend our money.
If this analogy is not clear, I’ll attempt to portray the main actors and the objects (of the Souk) as represented by familiar objects in our everyday lives.
The souk = your smartphone
The first thing you do when you wake up each morning is to enter the souk. You do this by grabbing the smartphone that sits on your nightstand.
Vendors calling out to you = your smartphone notifications
In a manner of speaking — vendors call out to you in the way of push notifications that fill up your homescreen.
And in today’s world, this is how an individual’s attention and focus becomes exposed to Big Tech’s machinery. The culprits? Notifications from platforms owned by companies like Google, Facebook, and other social media apps.
54 emails received overnight in your Gmail.
10 Twitter alerts.
15 Facebook updates.
20 Instagram notifications.
They’re in your face, begging you to step inside their “web”— the apps — so they can carry out their programmed intentions, further robbing you of your time that you could be spending in a more purposeful manner.
The store = your inbox, social media platforms, and other apps
The notification trap has now ensnared you. Your attention is firmly mired in these apps and your day has only just begun.
You enter your inbox and are immediately surrounded by unread emails. Now, this is very much like the analogy of making a souk purchase. You inspect the item (email), ask about its price (how much time you will need to invest in it), and whether you need to purchase it at all (decide whether to delete, delegate, defer or do based on the 4D’s of effective time management).
You open Facebook and Instagram and are hit with all forms of content as you scroll through your feed. Each piece of content demands that you pay attention to it. Along with the time spent with every piece, you place a value on each one. You look out for more of the same content if it captures your attention the first time around.
As you’re about to leave, something else grabs your attention — a link to a BuzzFeed episode of ‘Worth It’ where they compare a $4 burger to a $777 dollar one (great series by the way). One video doesn’t quite do it, so you head over to YouTube to watch entire seasons in one sitting.
Very soon, you’ve interacted with almost EVERYTHING the store has to offer, and you’ve spent the better half of the day doing it, ugh!
Items in the store = any written, audio or visual content
As you’ve probably already figured, every item in the store is a piece of written, audio or visual content that captures your attention which then causes you to engage with it.
Living without purpose often leads to a misallocation of attention
“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.” — Jose Ortega y Gasset
When you have a purpose to work towards, all of your attention is directed towards achieving that aim. You’re not easily distracted by the whims and fancies of the day. You consciously choose what to interact with — physically or online, to see if that will aid or hinder you in the pursuit of your purpose.
You may even borrow actor Robert Townsend’s mantra for that purpose when he asks:
“Is what I’m doing or about to do getting us closer to our objective?”
If on the other hand, you lead a life without intention, that is — without a sense of purpose, you will always be that tourist who ambles along the narrow aisles of the souk, defenseless against the smooth sales talk of the vendors (your notifications) amidst the allure of their shiny wares (social media and other apps).
Your attention will be directed and captured by actors and forces other than yourself. You will be led by the nose, susceptible to shiny object syndrome, and easily distracted into giving up your time, energy and money toward endeavors that are not rooted in purposeful goals.
Set purpose-driven goals to reclaim your attention
“People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going” — Earl Nightingale
The best way to guard your attention is knowing what to say no to. In order to do that, you need to be very clear what it is you want and do not want.
It is this clarity, Thomas Oppong says, that “has the power to shape your life; your decisions, choices and ultimately your daily actions.” Decisions such as where and how to allocate your attention.
While most of us are pretty clear about what we do not want, less of us are clear on what we truly want to achieve with our lives — our purpose, if you will. It is this purpose that will ultimately direct your goals and with it, your attention.
If you desire to take back control of your life and attention, you need to find a purpose to dedicate your efforts towards.
When you know what it is you’re working towards, it becomes easy to form goals that will allow you to get there. These purpose-driven goals will not only provide direction but also serve as motivation for the long road ahead.
What a day at the souk looks like when you live with purpose and intention
“He who every morning plans the transaction of the day and follows out the plan, carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life.” — Victor Hugo, French poet
If Victor Hugo thought that life in the 19th century was a labyrinth, he’d be absolutely dumbfounded to see the way we live now. But his sage advice remains true and especially relevant today as we continue to be overwhelmed by a surge of demands on our attention.
When we have a game plan for each day that aligns with our purpose-driven goals, we are more intentional in how we approach every interaction.
We guard our resources of time, energy and money better.
We end up allocating our attention more efficiently.
Imagine walking through the souk knowing where you will exit it. Imagine knowing exactly which store you will enter, and which items you absolutely need to purchase. You confidently reject random vendors trying to pull you in, and don’t spend more time than is necessary at each store.
That’s what happens when you live a life of purpose and intention.
Of course, every once in a while, you’ll be tempted to stroll into a side alley in the hopes of discovering something new, or just to take a break. That’s perfectly fine, as long as you’re doing it on your own terms.
After all, life is not all about chasing goals.
But it sure helps to have them.