Steve Rubel is following the lead of many others into Toffler’s “information overload is driving us crazy” tarpit. He’s in good company, joined by Herbert Simon, Tom Davenport, and Linda Stone: the Attention Economists.
[from Micro Persuasion: The Attention Crash]
We are reaching a point where the number of inputs we have as individuals is beginning to exceed what we are capable as humans of managing. The demands for our attention are becoming so great, and the problem so widespread, that it will cause people to crash and curtail these drains. Human attention does not obey Moore’s Law.
With this philosophy in mind [Tim Ferliss’s 4 Hour Workweek], I have trimmed projects, RSS feeds and emails to hone in on the 20 percent that’s most important. It’s also why I am not trying every new site that floats in my inbox and deleting pitches that are clearly off topic w/o even reading them.
My attention has reached a limit so I have re-calibrated it to make it more effective. I think this issue is an epidemic.
No, I think we need to develop new behaviors and new ethics to operate in the new context.
Most people operate on the assumption that the response to increased flow is to intensify what was working formerly: read more email, read more blogs, write more IMs, and so on. And at the same time motor on with the established notions of what a job is, how to accomplish work and meet deadlines, and so on.
In a time of increased flow, yes, if you want to hold everything else as is — your definition of success, of social relationships, of what it means to be polite or rude — Steve is right: you will have to cut back.
Alternatively, we can start to shift everything, let go of a lot of the old ways, and operate on a new, pre-industrial, pre-agricultural footing.
- It’s OK not to respond to emails, vmails, or IMs. There is no possible way that you can live a public life, open to the world, and respond to every request that comes along. The same holds even if it is a friend, or colleague. People have to pick and choose: it’s a big world.
- It’s sensible to have a nomadic reading style: if something is important it will show up in a variety of places. Don’t be a slave to RSS readers: throw them away. (I have always hated RSS readers that emulate the email inbox, for exactly this reason: they make everything seem equally important… or equally unimportant.)
- Unlike Steve (or Tim Ferliss), I don’t know exactly how to trim out the 80% of everything that is junk, as Tim Ferliss suggests. I do fire clients that make things difficult, unpleasant, or unrewarding, but it’s not statistical. I constantly gravitate to projects and people that I think offer the greatest opportunities for growth, which means constantly leaving other things behind. But this is just another kind of flow, not a one-time triage: it is a constant attrition and acquisition.
Instead of the 4 Hour Workweek, though, I suggest that people read the Tao Te Ching:
Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
The answer is not becoming obsessed with attention as a limited resource to be husbanded, or thinking of our cognition as a laser beam to be pointed at only at what is important.
We need to unfocus, to rely more on the network or tribe to surface things of importance, and remain open to new opportunities: these are potentially more important than the work on the desk. Don’t sharpen the knife too much.