Attention Resource Deficit

How much did your last laptop cost? You probably know down to the penny. How much time did it take for you to put together your last Powerpoint deck or fix an issue for a customer? You can probably track that time in the hours you recorded on your timesheet. What about the last big meeting you had of the department? Can you figure out how many hours combined of time that it took to get the business discussed? Pretty easy to calculate when you know how many people and how long it took.

All of these examples are ways that we track resources in the workplace. We want to know how many dollars were invested in a particular tool. We want to figure out how many hours someone has worked on a project or a proposal. We want to know how much of the company’s resources are being invested so we can track it and understand productivity and such. But when’s the last time you tracked your personal resources? I’m not talking about work you do or money you spend. I’m talking about something more personal than that. Because one of the things that I’ve seen recently that is starting to cause issues is the lack of attention we pay to our attention resource.

Running in Overdrive

Our brains run a lot of processes in our body. And a lot of those processes work without attention. Bodily functions like breathing, digestion, and our endocrine system work without us paying attention. That’s because these systems need to work for us every time without stopping. That’s the power of automation.

But the rest of our processes need our attention. Our cognitive processes and higher-order functioning need us to pay attention. Yes, even those tasks that you say you can do without thinking. They require you to pay some sort of conscious attention to what’s going on. And that comes out of your attention budget.

Ever wonder why people are good at multitasking? It’s because they are capable to splitting their attention budget up and paying attention to a couple of different things at the same time. Just like a multitasking computer, human multitasking is just devoting a portion of your attention to a different task for a little bit while you work on something else. But have you ever seen what happens when a CPU gets overloaded with tasks? Sluggish, slow, and unusable.

The same thing happens to people when their attention is drawn in too many different directions. When we exhaust our attention budget we let tasks drop and we stop being able to do things effectively. We have a pool of resources we can use and when those run out we have to take resources from other places. That’s when tasks start getting dropped and such.

People don’t tend to see attention as a finite resource. They see it as a bottomless well that always has a little more available when it’s necessary. We create tools and ideas and systems to help us manage it better. But all those tools are really designed to add a bit more of our fracture attention back to the resource pool. In reality, we’re still shuffling resources back and forth and not really adding to the overall pool. It’s not unlike dealing with a CPU with a finite amount of resources. You can’t get more than this no matter what tricks you use. So you need to learn how to deal with things as they are.

Retreating From the Redline

Internal combustion engines work best when they’re running in their power band, which is the area where they are most effective. The effectiveness of the engine drops off as it approaches the redline, which is the maximum amount of performance you can get without causing damage to the engine. It’s the hard limit, if you will. To apply this to our current discussion, you need to run your brain’s attention span in the power band of focusing on the right tasks as you need to and avoid pushing past the redline of inattention and letting things drop. But how can you do that knowing you have to work from a finite pool of resources? Your brain isn’t a CPU or an RPM gauge on a car. There isn’t a magic meter that will tell you when you’ve exceeded your resource pool.

Step One is the reduce the number of distractions you have. That is way harder than it sounds. There are some easy things you can do that have been documented over the years:

  • Set your email to only update in time segments. Every 15 minutes or even every hour for non-critical stuff. The less time you spend attaching yourself to a constantly-updating mailbox the more productive you can be.
  • Sign out of unnecessary Slack channels. The more you have open, the more attention you’re going to pay to them. And the less attention you have for other things too.
  • Limit social media engagement. Ever find yourself sucked into Facebook or TikTok? That’s by design. The operators want you to stick there and not do anything else. If you have to monitor social media for your job, create rules and lists to keep you focused on task. And save the causal stuff for another day.
  • Use the Pomodoro Technique. I’ve written about it before, but this is a great way to force your brain into focusing for short bursts. Once you can train yourself to block out distractions you can get a lot accomplished.

The second way that I find that I can help refuel my attention pool is to use checklists or some other method of dumping my brain contents in a way that lets me focus. I can put down things that need to be done and check them off as they are completed. But I don’t just put major projects like “Boil the Ocean” or “Put a spaceship on Mars”. Instead, I break everything down into simple, achievable tasks. Why? Because crossing those off the list gives you back some of the attention you dedicated to them. It’s like the programming equivalent of garbage collection. By returning your attention resources back to the pool you have more available to tackle bigger and badder things on your list. And when you ever feel like you aren’t getting enough done you can go back and see all the things you’ve crossed off!


Tom’s Take

I have a double whammy of being unfocused on my best days and being too forgetful to write things down. So I understand the issues of attention resource problems. As much as anyone I really wish I could just wave a magic wand and be able to pay closer attention to what I’m doing. The tricks above are ways that I cope with what I have to deal with. In fact, the number of times I got distracted even just writing this post would probably shock most people reading this. But we work with what we have and we do what we can. The key is to recognize that your attention is a resource that is just as valuable as money or work time. Treat is as such and plan for use and you may find yourself feeling better and being happier and more productive in a number of ways.