It has become increasingly difficult to manage our attention in the 21st century. There are infinite inputs and distractions vying for our time. This undermines our ability to live and work effectively in the long-run.
There are a few reasons why we find it difficult to manage our attention:
First, we deal with what is known as the paradox of choice. Having a choice in the past was a good thing, only that’s not true anymore. It was supposed to free us, but we only end up more paralyzed. We were supposed to be happier with more choices, but we only end up more dissatisfied.
Of course, the more choices we have, the more decisions we need to make. And, the more we say “no” to things, the more we’re using our limited decision-making power, and the more we suffer with decision fatigue. The more we suffer from this, the less we are able to make decisions about things that actually matter a great deal. This begs the question if we should even be putting ourselves in situations where we are inclined to make those choices in the first place. Having to make more choices than ever only makes it more difficult to use our attention well.
Of course, the advent of the internet hasn’t made it any easier to use our attention optimally. We consume more “content” in a day than our ancestors did in a year. Instead of consuming information mindfully, we consume it on a “just-in-case” basis in case we need it and/or for fear of losing out on it. We don’t think twice before taking out our devices in public to see what’s new in them. We have forgotten what it’s like to be present, to just be as a “normal person”.
We do more than one cognitively demanding task at the same time without thinking twice about it, but we only end up switching tasks, which vastly attentuates our ability to do one thing well. I wrote about this in Multitasking.
The problem is not necessarily that we are exposed to more information than ever, although that’s a big part of it. The real problem comes from having to discern the inputs that might be potentially meaningful. Taking these non-stop, continuous inputs, and having to constantly discern between the useful and the not so useful is what can drain us and leave us mentally fatigued.
The thing is that our brains were not designed for these behaviors, but we end up doing just that.
As Herbert Simon said:
What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.
Of course, all of this would imply that the problem is “out there”, so to speak, but that is not the case either. The problem is how we make choices about things as opposed to what is happening to us. Granted, technology has made it difficult for us to stay exposed to fewer things (and to say “no” more often), but it’s ultimately upon us to be proactive. The onus is upon us to protect (and use) our attention rather than blame others for taking it. Unless we are proactive about how we use our attention, we risk becoming numb to it. We risk spreading ourselves thin, and we don’t want that.
We know that the time and attention we have are finite, so we must be extremely discerning with how we use it, where we spend it, and who we spend it with. That could mean that you stop thinking about things that don’t require your attention. Be ruthless and extremely discerning with who/what you spend your time and attention with/on. Unless you protect it, others will take it from you by default. It requires tremendous self-discipline and proaction. Besides, life is too short to live based on other peoples’ expectations and to be around those who suck the energy out of you. Unless you decide to be proactive about where your attention is going, it will always be hijacked by others because you’ll end up living in reactionary mode.
Our attention is the most valuable resource we have. There is no value we can put on who/what we think about. It cannot be bought, it must be earned (by others), and it’s in limited supply. Because our attention is finite, we risk using it sub-optimally unless we use it resourcefully.
As the French philosopher, Simone Weil has said:
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
Now that we’re aware that our attention is finite (and valuable), where do we put our valuable time and attention? How do we use it well? How do we use it to make choices that work for us rather than against us? How do we make fewer decisions on things that matter versus making decisions about the many things that don’t? How do we make the most out of it so we can lead happy, fulfilled lives? How do we use it to do the “right” things, aka the things that matter to us?
In order to use our attention well, we need to first find out where our attention is. We need to be mindful about what has our attention. If we aren’t, it’ll take more of our attention than it deserves. Here are a few ways to do that.
Spend some time in solitude every day; mornings are best for this. Create space to listen to yourself every day. Take a few minutes every day to write in the morning. At the end of it, capture things that might be potentially meaningful in your trusted system, then deal with it later. Look at your past week’s calendar to see where you’ve spent your time. What we say and what we do are often at odds with each other, but our calendars don’t lie.
Once we know where our attention is going, it’s time to evaluate: figure out what it is that we want to keep and what we want to change. Where do we want to put our attention?
Knowing where to put our attention requires us to know where we are headed in life and then working toward that. Unless we know where we are going, how do we know when we get there? We won’t. What do you want your life to mean looking back when all is said and done? What’s your purpose? What drives you? When thinking about your end, remember that few things matter in the end and almost everything else is noise.
It is imperative that we have a changeless core inside of us that remains constant when the world around us is always changing. Unless we have that reference point, we would be living in reactionary mode without having any internal clarity. We would not know how to use our attention because our WHY isn’t clear.
Once you know that end for you, you will have clarity about your life. You’ll instinctually know where to spend your attention. This will help you prioritize your attention over everything else.
We can’t do everything (nor do we want to), so we must do fewer things better. Knowing that, figure out those few things that matter to you in terms of relationships and results, and then spend as much of your time doing just that.
When you know those few things, you’ll know where to put your attention. Things that were once blurry will quickly become clear. Knowing where we are going determines where your attention goes. Saying “yes” to a few things makes it easy to say “no” to almost everything else unless something overlaps with your agenda.
How do we do those few (important) things as much as possible? With proper management, of course. That comes down to using our time well by making sure that we do those things first. The more we can do those things without thinking, the better we’ll be able to do them.
Be ruthless with how you spend your time. Prioritize yourself over others knowing that we can only help others (if we want to) when we help ourselves first. This involves blocking the time we need for ourselves first. To do that, spend some time every week to plan your week, and then use the week to do those things. Block time to eat, move, and sleep in your calendar as those are the first things we tend to skimp on, and not doing them well undermines our abilities. It’s all about working and playing rhythmically.
Stop thinking about things that don’t need your attention. Create some order in your life so you can be fully creative in your work. The point is to use our attention to think about things that actually need our attention and not using it all up. That also means making fewer but better decisions. When you create some order in your life, you’re enabling yourself to do the essential without thinking about it.
Another way to add some structure to your day is to bookend it by having morning and evening routines. Use sensible defaults to make final choices about things. Use processes that make it easy for you to do these things with little thought in order to reach your outcomes.
There will always be demands for our time from others. One way to deal with those is to get fewer requests by building fences in advance. The fewer requests we get, the fewer decisions we have to make. This means the quality of the decisions we do end up making will be better.
How do you deal with requests that get through those fences? Well, learning to pause can help you make decisions about those requests objectively. Learn to say no by default unless it somehow overlaps with your agenda. Have personal values and stick to it. These values can evolve with time, and that’s okay. In fact, that’s called change. Know your deal breakers; don’t let others violate them, ever.
Our attention is at grave risk today. Unless we do something about it now, we will end up living our lives reactively and short-changing ourselves over the course of a lifetime.
Since our attention is our most valuable asset, it is imperative that we protect it at all costs. Without that, we have nothing. How we use it can make all the difference between living proactively and living reactively and getting nowhere.
We all want to live intentionally with purpose, but we have only so much time and attention. Unless we are extremely discerning with how we use our time and attention, how can we live a life that truly matters?