|We’re designed and indoctrinated to pay attention to the here and now, what’s urgent and consistent with our worldview, not what’s important and complex and far away. And it usually takes pain, a shock to the system, a wake-up call, to get us to shift our attention.
If you want to get someone to act — to help you save the world, to go on a date with you, to learn something from you, or for any other purpose, you must first get their attention. We are so overwhelmed with demands on our attention — increasing pressure to make decisions at work, cell-phone calls and e-mails 24/7, endless priorities nagging us at home — that getting people’s attention is nearly impossible.
When politicians want our attention, they focus on things we care deeply about — health, education, security — and usually suggest, blatantly, that their opponents pose a threat to those things. Advertisers mostly tell stories that they hope we relate to, entailing the use of things that purportedly make our lives easier, more comfortable or more interesting. Employers use a combination of compliments, rewards, and criticisms (implied threats) to keep our attention. The media pander to different audiences, using sensational and entertaining stories, powerful images, reassurances and editorials that describe threats to things we care deeply about.
So now we are bombarded with so much information and so many objects with one or more of the attributes in the left column above, that we are nearly numbed by it all. The competition for our attention has become the greatest competition of all. We need to get plastic surgery or starve ourselves to death to attract a mate because being merely beautiful isn’t enough any more, it can’t compete with dazzling. We need to make the opposing politician look even more threatening than he has made us look, so that the voter will dare not stay home on election day and must go out to vote against the threat.
But ultimately the world is not significantly more complicated than it has ever been, so why are we so stressed out by the firehose of alternatives and decisions that occupy much of our mental energy throughout our waking hours? My suspicion is that when we make attention a scarce commodity, we shift advantage to those with the resources to pay more for it. What the rich and powerful now enjoy is a small cozy clique that can afford to buy all of the bandwidth of your attention, so that they drown out all the other voices that might otherwise command some of your attention. The vehicle for this is oligopoly — the total domination of each industry, each body politic, by two or three players (corporations or political parties) each engaged in a collusive and self-reinforcing war for your attention, all hurling an escalating deluge of alternative information and products at you, all attempting to meet the criteria on the left side of the chart above.
Our chronic attention deficit is not solely the fault of those who would exploit it for commercial or political gain, however. My inbox is full of e-mails from readers with thoughtful comments on my writing that begs a careful read and a considered reply. I am, despite the discipline of Getting Things Done, once again seriously behind in getting to the important things in my life because all my time is spent doing urgent things, and recuperating from doing those things.
Last week I had the rare opportunity to see ‘behind the scenes’ at Disney World in Florida. They understand the importance of attention, but they have a very different approach to it. It is the job of management to pay attention to the individuals who work for them, and to remove obstacles that prevent them from paying attention to individual customers. Decisions on what to do and what to pay attention to are governed by a simple set of ordered priorities: safety first, courtesy second, the show third, and efficiency fourth. So if someone if behaving recklessly on a ride, safety first, stop the show. And if a child is unhappy, pull out all the stops to cheer them up, even if that cuts into profits. These rules are invariable, and no employee can ever be criticized for following them.
What I learned from this is that in order to refocus attention on what is important, you have to be permitted (or allow yourself) to stop paying attention to other things, without fear of dire consequences when you do so. To some extent Disney’s employees are treated as customers by management, and as long as they are always rewarded for looking after their customers, and giving them individual attention, they can never go wrong. Line employees can stop paying attention to management directives, mission statements, and other top-down ‘noise’, and focus all their time and attention on the customer. Management, likewise, can stop paying attention to planning exercises, group meetings, and the other usual diversions of management and focus all their time and attention on their customer, the employee, listening and solving individual problems and getting rid of obstacles to them doing their job. It’s improvisational management, it’s highly respectful of individual initiative and self-management, and it works. And if you buy what I’ve been writing in these pages about complex systems and how traditional approaches to problem-solving and decision-making don’t work in such systems, it’s actually the best way to run a business — responding to continuous probes into the market at the front lines, getting rid of obstacles and distractions and top-down command-and-control programs that never produce anything enduring anyway, and managing by paying attention.
How could we apply this in our personal lives? Perhaps the same way. We need to decide for ourselves on a simple set of ordered priorities (analogous to Disney’s safety, courtesy, show, efficiency) that reflect our personal values, what’s really important to us, and then let those priorities constantly drive what we pay attention to and more importantly what we stop paying attention to. Perhaps the best way to do that would be to stop and prepare our own eulogy, how we would like to be remembered when we’re gone, and allow that to inform what will be our priorities from today on. It is conflicting priorities that make managing our lives exhausting and frustrating and allow us to be distracted from what is important by what is (apparently) urgent, or momentarily interesting, every waking moment of our lives. My guess is that such a list would cause some of us to make some significant lifestyle changes — like turning off the TV for good, like exercising, and like finding a job with shorter hours.
I made up a list of ten ordered priorities for myself, and found they reflected my personal schizophrenia — at times I love personal interaction, and at other times I need solitude and time for personal reflection. So whittling the list down to four and then putting them in order was a challenge. But here’s my first crack at it. I’ve posted it at the top of my Getting Things Done list, to see whether it will have an impact on what I start, and what I accomplish, every day.
My interests and intellectual curiosity are quite broad, so a lot of things could fit within these four priorities. But looking back at what I’ve done over the last year or so most of the things I have done contribute significantly to none of these four priorities. I continue to spend far too much attention on things that merely distract from giving more attention to these priorities. We console ourselves that the urgent things that take up all our attention today ‘have to be done’, but the truth is that we could change our lives in such a way that they wouldn’t have to be done. I blame my procrastination for my own inaction on this, and my lack of courage, but I think the real reason is more mundane: a lack of self-confidence, combined with a high level of comfort with what I’m doing now. And I’d bet I’m in good company.
Despite all I know about what’s needed, what’s happening and what’s possible, there still isn’t enough pain in my life to get me to pay attention to what’s really important. So how can I blame others for being seduced by false comforts, for seeking refuge in ignorance or denial, or for paying attention to what is ‘merely’ urgent?
If we really hope to save the world, we need to get people to perceive a lot more pain with the status quo, so they shift their attention to the job that needs to be done, and so that we make what’s important urgent. So far we’ve been stressing things on the right hand side of the above chart: the abstraction of global warming, misery they don’t want to hear about and potential but not imminent dangers they don’t want to know about. If we want a few billion people to pay attention, we need to appeal in concrete and personal terms to things they care deeply about (like the legacy they’re leaving their children), to tell powerful and positive stories about what’s possible, to make it easier for them to understand and participate in making what’s possible real, and to show them images and tell stories about what’s happening right now, and what they can do about it.
(photo by Yves Lafon)