Attention!

Jonathan Harris wrote a manifesto for Transom called “Navigating Stuckness” which I would recommend that you read this week if you have some spare time. It is an autobiographical account of his career so far. He had a great quote on the importance of owning your attention which is worth thinking about.

 “We have these brief lives, and our only real choice is how we will fill them. Your attention is precious. Don’t squander it. Don’t throw it away. Don’t let companies and products steal it from you. Don’t let advertisers trick you into lusting after things you don’t need. Don’t let the media convince you to covet the lives of celebrities. Own your attention — it’s all you really have.”

Your attention is all you really have. This is because whatever you give your attention; you also give your time and hence your life. Jonathan Harris is right; we have to be careful what we give our attention, time and life to.

When I read this passage of the manifesto, I was reminded of Herbert Simon’s quote on attention:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Ben Hammersley also had an interesting view on attention in his book, ‘64 things you need to know now for then’.

 “As individuals we need to pay attention to what we pay attention to, and we need to make sure that the attention we’re paying is the best possible attention that we can apply to a particular subject. You can only spend your attention once, so it’s worth spending it wisely. It is this genuine scarcity that makes it interesting. Anything you pay attention to is preventing you from paying attention to something else. In many ways this is a fundamental shift in the human condition. We have gone from people who were attention rich but information poor, to people who are information rich but attention poor.

We use a lot of interesting metaphors when we talk about attention as evidenced in Hammersley’s quote. We tend to talk about ‘spending’, ‘paying’, ‘wasting’ and ‘squandering’ attention. These metaphors equate attention as money or scarce resource or commodity – something precious and valuable.

Do you see and value your attention this way too?

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