Attention Budgeting Part 1: How to Track Your (Attention) Expenses
Thoughts on multitasking, attention vampires, and quality of thought. Practical ways to manage your attention in a world full of distractions.
The average person has over 50,000 conscious thoughts every single day. While we may not be able to control every thought that passes through our minds, we can control the attention we feed them. Attention is what determines whether a thought will create a well-traveled, paved, mental pathway, or simply go in and out the back door of our minds. As the underestimated key player in our life experience, attention is powerful enough to turn the mundane into the magical, bring chaos into patterns—and, it’s inextricably connected to love.
Unfortunately, attention management takes a back seat in our culture, to the management of the more popular resources–time, money and energy. While these resources are undeniably important, they fall flat without attention. We don’t simply want more time, see, we want more meaningful time, with richer experiences, deeper connections, and more vivid memories—each of which requires attention applied to time. Attention steers reality so how we manage it is vital.
How does one go about attention budgeting? This is not a post about using a Pomodoro productivity hack or willing yourself to sit up a little straighter during a lecture. This is a post meant for anyone interested in having a better quality of life by having a better quality of thought; it’s meant for anyone who wants to take ownership of one of their most precious resources.
ATTENTION BUDGETING BASICS
Tracking Your Expenses
In the words of Peter Drucker, “what gets measured, gets managed.” Meaning, if you want to improve your attention spending patterns, you first have to know where you’re paying dues. While there’s no Wellsfargo or Mint app to keep tabs on your attention, there are a couple of ways to at least increase your awareness.
Tip # 1 Thought Journal
Personally, I like to keep a (top secret) running note tab in my phone to wrangle all the ping pong ball ideas and stray monkey thoughts, responsible for monkey mind. But whether you opt for the traditional brain dump or the daily thought catcher, is of lesser importance compared to your transparency and consistency of the activity. If you write your thoughts often enough, and unfiltered enough, eventually you will see recurring patterns and themes.
Tip # 2 Screen Time Report
A lesser known way of tracking attention is by taking a look at your screen time report. Let’s face it, your attention and your body are not always in the same place. For example, even if your calendar says you “attended” a meeting Monday afternoon, your screen report might reveal that your thoughts attended the Warrior game highlights. The mobile screen time breakdown will tell the truth even when your calendar lies.
Note, daydreaming in small doses is normal, but physical presence without attention makes for hollow company. Thus, if your body and your attention are constantly in two different locations, it could be a sign that you stopped showing up to your own life, and this, in itself, needs attention.
Tip # 3 Beware of Hidden Fees and Subscriptions
Your attention is a finite currency, in a world of distraction, wrought with hidden fees.
There is no such thing as toll-free multitasking. If you decided to drive back and forth between San Francisco and Oakland 10 times in a day, the bridge toll fees would amount to 100 dollars—costly enough to deter any sensible person from making the said trek. Regard your attention in the same way. Every time you switch tasks or get distracted, you cross a bridge, and there is always a toll on your attention.
A subscription, on the other hand, is anything, or anyone, that charges your attention on a recurring basis. Many of us have grown accustomed to tolerating toxic automatic subscriptions, that drain our attention accounts every day. For example, if your daily routine is to check email first thing, drive to work irritated about the traffic, worry about office drama, have a fight with your significant other about the distribution of dishes, and bop around in a scattered scroll on your phone—a solid chunk of your attention change is on auto withdrawal, investing towards things you probably don’t want to compound in interest.
Blowing your attention allowance on petty things prevents you from being able to pay attention to meaningful things. That said, not all automatic subscriptions are bad. For example, attention habits such as an insightful podcast on your commute, a morning gratitude journal, a good night kiss, or a weekly book discussion—can be quite life-giving. The key is to be aware of which subscriptions match your values and let go of the rest.
*Stay tuned! Next up is attention budgeting, and how to tell your attention where to go ahead of time.