How many times have you heard the phrase “pay attention?” Too many to count I’m sure, but have you ever stopped to think about what it means? Although the expression can be traced back hundreds of years, its meaning has evolved to become more literal. The verb ‘pay’ means “to render, bestow or give” something, such as a compliment, a visit or one’s respects. But now, when applied to the noun ‘attention,’ the most fitting meaning is “to give over a certain amount of something in exchange for something else.” Which begs the question, what is it exactly that we’re exchanging our attention for?
Given the context of the current so called ‘attention economy,’ I think we should be giving this question some serious consideration. In fact, I think we should give it the same consideration as we do when we pay money for something. Sometimes we think a lot about how much we’re spending and what we’re getting in return, and sometimes we don’t. But we always understand that an exchange is happening. That’s why we’re so excited if we get a deal and so mad if we feel we’ve been ripped off. We should apply the same thinking to how we spend our attention. And here’s why.
1) Our attention is finite
In general, we understand that money is finite. Each of us has only so much, regardless of how much that is at any one time. But what most people don’t think about is that our attention is also finite. In fact, even more so than money. We have options for increasing the money we have but we cannot increase the attention we have. Multitasking is a myth—science has proven that our brain can really only focus on one thing at a time. Our attention is limited so we can choose where to apply it but we cannot create more of it.
2) Our attention has value
The term ‘attention economy’ was first coined by Michael Goldhaber in a Wired magazine article in 1998. Two years before then, the authors of the book Rules of the Net prophetically wrote that “attention is the hard currency of cyberspace.” In the 20 years since, the media, advertising and entertainment industries have profited immensely from exchanging our attention for content of one kind or another. We may not appreciate the value of our attention but one look at the success of Facebook, Fortnite and Netflix, among others, and it’s clear they do. It’s time we changed our mindset and asked, is what we’re receiving in return for our attention a fair exchange?
3) We can invest our attention
Like money, we can fritter our attention away on something worthless or invest it in something valuable. Paying attention to what matters most to us—be it our relationships, career, education, health or hobbies—can enrich our lives in many ways, sometimes even financially. But letting our attention be directed by the talented folks in tech is like handing over our bank accounts to Wall Street for them to spend as they see fit. I doubt the outcome would enrich our lives as much as it would enrich theirs. The choice is yours to make. Invest your attention wisely and it will pay off in spades.
As the saying goes, “measure what matters.” If you want to invest your attention more wisely, you need to start with where you spend it now. Take a couple of days or a full week to track what you spend your attention on and for how long. Even a rough approximation can be helpful. You can go old school with a pen and paper or use the device you likely have attached to you 24/7—your smartphone. There are many apps that will automatically track your time across devices, which is helpful since most of us spend so much of our attention online.
Once you understand your current attention spending habits, see how well they align with your priorities and goals. If there’s a disconnect, the easiest way to create change is to pick one area you want to pay more attention to and another you want to spend less attention on. To invest more attention in something, book time for it in your calendar and make that a priority. To pay less attention to something else, determine how much attention you’re willing to spend on it, like an allowance, and stick to that limit. Over time, spending less attention on the frivolous and more on that which really matters will lead to a richer, more fulfilling life.
“In the new economy, the most valuable asset you can accumulate may not be money, may not be wealth, may not even be knowledge, but rather, the ability to control your own attention, and to focus.”– Mark Manson