How and Why to Build your Attentional Immune System

Start with the question: what can we do to empower the next generation to thrive in a future of constant change?

  • Answer: My simple answer for this talk is: build skills of attentional control 


  • Past year, behavior design lab at Stanford with BJ Fogg
  • Tool to help people reduce their unwanted screentime
  • Done a lot of thinking and writing in the screen time space, and I myself have gone through transformations from a computer-game-addicted teenager to a compulsive facebook-checking, youtube-watching student, to somebody who at this point has almost no regretted screentime at all.  I want to share with you what’s worked for me personally and what we see working for others to take control of their attention. 
  • Half talk about a concept called the attentional immune system, then half on a recommended practice for you to do around screentime

1. Theory: Attentional immune system

First, how do we build attentional control and what constitutes a healthy attentional immune system?


Our attention is so precious and so important to our wellbeing and ability to get things done in the world.  Where we put our attention determines the quality of our mental life:

  • You can fill a whole day paying attention only to disturbing imagery and news
  • You can sit down to an exquisite meal, and if your attention is elsewhere, you’ll hardly even notice what you’re eating
  • And our ability to keep our attention deliberately on an object of our choosing is not only a powerful skill of mindfulness, but it’s also essential to accomplishing all goals we have that require deep work and sustained focus. 

The problem is, it’s also the currency of all online advertising revenue streams.  So the most powerful companies in the world are largely incentivised to keep your attention on them and their products, generally well beyond when it’s actually good for you and in alignment with your own values.  

[[Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Technology [link] have spoken eloquently about this issue, and he speaks of the avatar version of you that these large data-collecting companies have built that can basically predict your behavior better than you can.  You’re literally up against supercomputers that have access to extensive amounts of your personal information that exist strictly to keep you “engaged” with their products and services so that they can sell more ads.  This is what we’re up against and what I want to share with you today is how to counter these forces to take back control of your attention.]]

In short: we want to use technology to our benefit, not the other way around.

So what can we do to build attentional control?

  • I’ve spent hundreds of hours in meditation, and I highly recommend it, both vipassana and pointing out styles. But that’s a different talk. [can include links]
    • But that type of intentional attention is a really scarce resource, and there’s lower hanging fruit for taking control of our attention, and that’s… 
  • by engineering our environment to return control of our attention back to us and out of the hands of the forces that would like to keep it for themselves

I like to think of this work as building up what I call your…

Attentional immune system

This idea comes from the biology nerd in me, but I think it’s a helpful metaphor that fits well enough: 

  • The AIS is, a system of practices and tools that protects your attention, allowing through the experiences that you actually want and value while preventing what you don’t want from intruding on your attention. [[repeat]]

Just like your body’s immune system it:

  1. Keeps you healthy by 
    1. Stopping threats from the environment (in this case, pulls on your attention to places you don’t want it to go)
    2. Allowing beneficial things through (that is, genuinely valuable experiences)
  2. Learns based on experience
  3. Does its job without much effort on your part: most of the time you don’t have to think about it
  4. [[And it mostly works on the external world, not on your own in-the-heat-of-the-moment motivation or ability.  
    1. In the world of behavior design, working on prompts is usually the best starting place to modify a behavior, whereas ability  —meditation attention training— can be a lot harder, so most of my focus here is on your environment and taking control of the prompts that reach your attention in the first place]]

2. Diagnosis: Screentime Reflection Practice

The goal here is to figure out where your problem areas are.  [[change background to framework to help you track these steps]]

Here’s the practice:

  1. Get some objective data on how you spend your attention on screens
    1. RescueTime for cross-platform or PC
    2. Digital Wellbeing tools for Android
    3. Screen Time for MacOS and iOS
  2. Take a couple minutes once a week to review the report and identify change areas by asking yourself:
    1. “What screentime do I regret from this past week?  What screentime was truly valuable?”
    2. Do this at a time when you’re not in the middle of screen-based activity.  This is important time to analyze the health of your attentional immune system, so make sure it’s truly intentional time.
    3. I also recommend a brief 10-second check-in with yourself every hour and every day.  You might recognize patterns you would otherwise miss. 
    4. [[And I emphasize regret as a shortcut to identify what’s not working for you, what the “bad” screentime is. I have a universal flourishing framework for behaviors that I’ll share soon on my website that’s more in-depth, but “what do I regret doing” is a good shortcut.  
      1. I like the prompt of “regret” as well because it necessarily implies a reflective practice: evaluating past behavior.  ]]
    5. With that in mind, go to the:
  3. STG at

And repeat: be easy on yourself, try again the next week.

3. Cure: Screentime Genie

[[switch to STG background. Welcome STG to our chat]]

We’ve worked hard to build a website with the world’s largest database of screentime solutions and a custom algorithm to match you with solutions that fit for you.

[[As part of this month’s screentime community theme, I’m including another video I recorded that walks through the STG in-depth, so you can check that out there]]

Go through it and not just to kick the tires and see what it looks like.  My challenge to you is to do the reflection exercise mentioned earlier and then use the STG tool to find the right solution.  

The tool will walk you through some questions, then present you some solution options.  I want you to choose solutions that you think will be effective for your particular screentime issues and that you can get yourself to do.  

People who actually implement one of the solutions report saving more than 30 minutes each day of regretted screentime on average.  Think about what that’s worth to you [plug value of time calculator]

For me, the most impactful solutions have been easy to do but have made a huge difference in my regretted screentime: 

  • blocking the recommended and auto-playing videos on youtube, 
  • blocking the Facebook news feed, 
  • setting a time limit on the websites that have a tendency to suck me in.  
  • It takes less than two minutes to do any of these things and, at least in my case, they probably save me hundreds of hours each year. 

Sometimes a solution can be a one-time behavior.  It’s one choice that can eliminate 1,000 choices in your future.  

This practice is your opportunity to act from your higher self and true intentions.  You are implementing the features and tweaks of your attentional immune system.  Make these choices intentionally, consciously, and purposefully.  

Don’t let other people trying to sell you things make the choices for you.  Deliberately resisting the design features of these sites and apps and games that are engineered to keep you there takes a lot of effort and it’s not a long-term success strategy.  You now have the tools to build a healthy attentional immune system to take back control of your attention. 

In the context of families

  • This will depend on the age of your kids and how mature they are, but even they can probably understand, not in the heat of the moment when you’re nagging them to stop playing a game, but upon sober reflection on how they really want to spend their time around sunday breakfast or something, I have faith that they might not say that they truly want to spend 6 hours straight playing minecraft.  Try and see!
  • In any case, effective modeling is important, so you might make it a family tradition to do a group review of screentime every weekend, talk through where you have your own regrets with your kids, and be open to changes based on how your family wished you used your devices differently as well. 

In the context of COVID

  • We are in a unique and special circumstance, and understandably we may be using our devices more frequently and with greater intensity now that many in-person and real-world experiences are not currently available.
  • To counter this, make a list of good ST replacement activities that you really would like to do: read some of the books on your shelf, practice cooking, do yard or house projects, or dig in online to learn something intentionally.  
    • Or as Gordy Ball, one of the organizers of this summit suggests, make a list of 25 things you’re curious about and return to it from time to time. 
  • But the same principles apply even when we’re stuck at home.  
    • Take stock of where you’re at.  
    • If you don’t like it, then now is your chance to make some changes. 
    • Start tiny.  Even small changes can make a big difference!
  • You took this time in your schedule to attend this summit and watch this presentation in order to improve your life and that of your children, but very little will happen unless you make some changes.  
  • Take the first step.

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