Attention Budgeting Part 3: The Best & Worst Investments
10-minute Audio/ 5-minute read
Check out the audio version here.
Whether we pay attention to people, pain, projects, or worry, there is always a return. What we invest in attention returns as experience. Read on to learn about the best and worst ROI for your attention.
In the first article of the attention management series, I talked about the important role that attention plays in our quality of life. With over 50,000 thoughts running around in your mind each day, attention is what allows you to chose which thoughts to entertain and which to let go. While thoughts are numerous, attention is finite, and it must be stewarded wisely. In part two of the series, I covered how to create a values-based attention budget, and stick to it with success.
In today’s post, the final installment of our attention management series, I’ll cover investing, and more specifically, the best and worst ROI (return on investment) for your precious attention currency. As Brad Stulberg writes “whatever we channel our attention towards receives a declaration of value, a reinforcing signal that our chosen pursuit is important.” So whether you blow it on Buzzfeed or channel it into a world-changing project, you’re always paying attention somewhere.
What you invest in attention, returns as experience. The attention market does not have to be volatile or complicated, but it does require intentionality. Let’s start with the poor investment choices and save the best for last.
The Worst ROI for Your Attention
Poor Investment #1 Worry
When we worry, we essentially siphon off the attention cash meant for today in order to fund the production of a worst-case scenario, mental dress rehearsal of tomorrow. This tunnel visioned disaster prep does not prepare us for the future. Instead, worry leaves us hollow, impoverished of attention for the present and too paralyzed to take action for the future. The ROI for worry is paralysis, and often, more worry.
Poor Investment #2 Resentment
As the saying goes, resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Sounds like common sense, but when it comes to attention, it’s not common practice. Consider the irony of how many people, after a painful relationship breakup, friendship betrayal, or toxic work situation firing, start paying double in attention donations —in the form of bitterness, anger, and situational rehashing—towards the person who hurt them.
Sure, you might feel justified and smug about these black market attention investments, but the longterm payoff is never in your favor. Sacrificing one of your rarest resources on behalf of the person who hurt you, leaves you attention broke and energy empty, not them. If you really want revenge that badly, just cut the attention funding and divert it to back to your real life.
Poor Investment #3 Regret
While worry is preoccupied with the future, regret dumps attention to the past, and neither is a wise thought investment strategy. To be fair, careful examination of the past can be helpful to spot patterns or apply wisdom. But after a situation has already been dissected, paying extra attention to an unchangeable time period has steep diminishing returns. It’s the mental equivalent of leaving a cash envelope on the doorstep of a dead landlord, years after your rental lease already expired.
Also worth noting, is that most regret investors aren’t actually interested in learning from their past—because that would require moving on from it. No, what regret investors secretly crave, is the illusion of control. The past is as well known as a stale re-run of an old TV show. Thus dwelling on it, offers a seemingly justifiable delay in stepping out into the exciting, but terrifying, wide open unknown.
If you want to be an intelligent attention investor, you must regard the past as a sunk cost. Grieve, heal, learn from your mistakes, and refinance your attention ASAP.
Part II The Best ROI for Your Attention
Now that you’re well aware of the attention market dangers, you might be wondering “Are there any good investment options for my attention?” Indeed, there are four ways to invest your attention that will yield significant positive returns.
Wise Investment #1 Planning
A couple of summers ago, my sister, Marie and I took a trip to Desolation Wilderness, on a whim. It all seemed like spontaneous Summer fun until hives erupted all over Marie’s arms and legs just 3 miles into our hike. Ill-prepared with neither campsite reservation, nor first aid kit, we were forced to turn back early. That night, instead of roasting sausages over a campfire, surrounded by the sound of crickets and the smell of pine trees, we ate a makeshift dinner in front of a concrete mall fountain, surrounded by suburban teenagers, in the first town off the freeway where could locate antihistamines.
The following year, however, Marie and I took a trip to the Trinity Alps and invested our attention in preparation the week before. We researched lodging, mapped out hiking trails known for late May wildflowers and waterfalls, curated playlists and podcasts, filled the car with gas, and packed a first aid kit with antihistamines. By the time Marie picked me up in Sacramento, our attention pre-payments had already untangled the logistical snags, leaving us free to blast the backstreet boys, talk about our real boys, eat snacks, and marvel at the mountain sunset as we drove due north to the tiny town of Weaverville.
If it feels difficult to pay attention to preventative details beforehand, remember that attention tax of an emergency is far more expensive. Ironically, even though preparation is for the future, the act of focused strategizing requires your attention to be a laser beam shining smack dab in the middle of the present. So, whether it’s meal prep, oceanic shark defense class, or dental hygiene school, investing attention in preparation on the front end of an endeavor, can reap tremendous benefits on the back end.
Wise Investment #2 Pain
If you’re someone who is vigilant about focusing only on positive thoughts, this one probably caught you off guard: but I’ll explain. Without the tenderness that allows us to feel pain, our hearts would calcify, our spirits would stagnate and our eyes would go blind to suffering around us. If you have chosen to live a life that is awake to the human experience—in its full blast, full color, vivid spectrum of emotion—then you will inevitably experience pain. There’s no getting around it.
In the face of pain, it can be tempting to go numb, deflect it, or become a victim, but none of these options lead to real healing. Author CS Lewis writes “pain insists upon being attended to.” Pain is just as worthy of our attention as joy. A broken heart deserves just as much attention as a broken leg. If you allow it, pain can be a powerful teacher pointing us to healing, and clarity on what’s truly important.
Wise Investment #3 Projects
This is a fancy way of saying work. All of us are called to work. Whether you sell software, brew tea, raise children, drive uber cars, or help people do their taxes, pay attention to the work you do so that you may do it with excellence.
Wise Investment #4 People
Attention is inextricably connected to love; it’s the magnifying glass we use to really see someone—to know them. Each person we encounter hold within them an entire world of dreams, fears, quirks, secrets, and stories. If we choose to, we can open up this world with attention in the form of curiosity, observation, listening, conversing, hugs, or the simply being… both physically and emotionally present at the same time.
Out of all the places to assign your attention in, love is the perhaps the riskiest investment on the entire market. Not all the people you love will offer you love in return. Projects are undeniably easier, more predictable, and less vulnerable. But yet, even still, connection is why we’re here and without love, we have nothing. The potential payoff to living with a tender and open heart is incalculable. A French philosopher once wrote, “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” So as you prepare to invest, remember to be generous and intentional with your attention and pay a premium to the people who matter most.