Dark Horse Tamed
Attention Economy: Team Daniel vs. Team Goliath
Updated: Apr 29
In my last post, I discussed why goals matter. In this post, as promised, I will discuss the central theme of my book – the fact that our goals are under attack from above and below, inside and out.
Whose New Economy?
Carl Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown, suggests that in the new economy, the people who will succeed are those who can master difficult problems and produce at high levels both in terms of quantity and quality.
To produce at this level, we need to apply energy in the form of focused attention through extended periods of time, a process he calls “deep work.” Focused attention, energy, and time form the three-dimensional canvas on which we build our lives.
The graph below represents one hour of the 3-D canvas on which we have to build our goals. It contains 100 (10x10x1) possible units of focused attention, energy, and time. Each unit represents sheer possibility – words typed, studying and understanding difficult concepts, painting a picture, meditating.
Sadly, reality is often not as rosy. That one hour is filled with noise, interruptions, and diversions.
As depicted below, we are interrupted by others (represented by smiley faces). We receive and respond to messages from loved ones. As the work becomes difficult and energy-consuming, we seek to release tension by mindlessly scrolling social media or browsing the Internet. As a result, we are left with a fraction of the 100 possible units originally available to us. Time, energy, and focused attention are being slowly robbed from us without our conscious attention.
In 1997, Michael Goldhaber, a theoretical physicist, prophesied that the new economy would not be about money but attention. A war over our attention would ensue, with companies trying to capture and capitalize on it. He proclaimed that we lived in an attention economy; in other words, attention would become the new currency.
Newport’s and Goldhaber’s claims about who will win in the new economy have one thing in common. Both claim that at the individual level, those who will do well will successfully defend against interferences and will harness focus and attention. That is how YOU will win, but for companies to win in the new economy, they must go after what is most scarce – the very thing you are trying to protect: your attention.
Thus, when considering who will win in the new economy, one must consider whose new economy we’re talking about in context: yours or that of companies? What will make you win is exactly what Big Tech and consumer companies are trying to take away from you. It becomes a personal obligation to determine who controls and who is controlled, who is subject and object.
The Odds (and Algorithms) Are Against Us
I recently attended a marketing conference that was a real awakening and a confirmation of Mr. Goldhaber’s prediction. Marketers who work with top consumer companies discussed with enthusiasm their strategies to win you over. The verdict: The companies that will win are those that can captivate your attention and keep your attention. And they will use every recourse to do so – entertainment being the primary mode.
Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma has recently created major buzz in parents’ circles around the country. It shed an important light on how algorithms are engineered to transform and control our lives, exposed by the same engineers who helped create it.
New technologies and marketing strategies have taken instant gratification to a whole new level, substantially increasing the number of distractions and interruptions in our daily lives and burying us in information overload. Content is irresistibly sexy and addictive.
Algorithms are created by some of the smartest computer scientists on a daily basis to increase time on site and engagement. It is Team Daniel against Team Goliath. We are on Team Daniel, trying to get things done, implement our goals, and tame our Dark Horses (who fall easily by the strategies applied by the opposing team).
Team Goliath has an army of the smartest software engineers and marketers – backed by the most recent research on brain cognition, psychology, and consumer behavior – being paid top dollar to think day in and day out about how to get you hooked. The power asymmetry is overwhelming.
We have two predominant reward circuits in our brain. Let’s call the first system the Cake Reward System and the second system the Gym Reward System.
The Cake Reward System is the system of instant gratification. You eat the cake and you immediately get a tickle in the pleasure circuitry of the brain. This is the system targeted and hijacked by new technologies and marketers, the system of our Dark Horses.
We also have the Gym Reward System, or the system of delayed gratification. That first time at the gym, or doing any kind of exercise, is never that much fun. But you know that by sticking to your plan, you eventually start to feel the rewards of your gym-going habit. This system applies to studying, speaking in public, writing, and most of the goals worth pursuing.
The Goliaths are masters of the Cake Reward System game. They know every trick in the book, they know your Dark Horse more than you possibly could, and they keep on churning new tricks.
To make matters worse, Team David has cognitive limitations that put us at a disadvantage:
1. Our brains have a limited attention span – the cognitive capacity to devote attention to, and process stimuli from, our environments. In other words, we can only productively process so much information from our environment at any one time.
2. Attention is the art of selecting from a large amount of stimuli and focusing on a small subset of those stimuli – the particular subset that will allow you to further your goals and achieve what you have set to achieve. The issue we face is that these stimuli have increased exponentially and will continue to increase; they are omnipresent, readily available anywhere we go. Without discernment, it becomes highly difficult to determine which stimuli we must pay attention to.
3. Multitasking, contrary to what we have been led to believe, overwhelms our brains, impairing important cognitive processing abilities, including focus, memory, and the ability to switch from one task to another. Multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” according to the late Dr. Ness from Stanford University.
4. When we multitask, we switch among tasks. Switching tasks creates an “attention residue,” or cognitive processes from a task that are not fully turned off even while we start on another task. This means that even though we have changed tasks, there are residual processes running in our brains from the previous task which continue to use up cognitive capacity. We may switch tasks but not necessarily our attention, and as a consequence, the performance of both tasks suffers.
5. Researchers have tried to identify the “multitasker’s edge.” They couldn’t find the edge. In fact, they learned that multitaskers were overloaded with information coming from both the environment and from their memories, impairing their abilities to discern what was most important to achieve their goals. Multitaskers multitask not because they are good at it, but because they struggle to focus. Managing a task from start to completion is too much for their scattered brains, so they end up engaging in multiple tasks at once.
So, if I have laid my case effectively up to this point, you can see that our attention is under attack, the Goliaths of the new economy will do what they can to grab your attention, and we have major physical and psychological limitations in dealing with attention.
Now, knowing that time and focused attention are the most precious resources you have at your disposal, and knowing that there is a dispersed army of highly intelligent software engineers and marketers being paid top dollar to steal time and attention from you, what will you do about it?
In Tamed, I lay out a number of evidence-based strategies to help you manage your attention.
Below are some of my favorites:
Mental contrasting: Lay out your goals, plan your work, and anticipate all the challenges you will face along the way, including distractions and interferences (Team Goliath being a big part of it). You know yourself best, so be honest! What derails you? What gets you unfocused?
Implementation intention: Develop plans for how to deal with each of the challenges anticipated in the mental exercise above. Use a “if X, then Y” formula. If “I feel tempted to check my phone,” then “I will turn it off.”
Alone time: Create chunks of time when you know there will be no interruptions. For me, it is 6:30 a.m. until 8 a.m. This hour and a half is golden and I let nothing get in its way.
This ‘r Nothing: Set your timer for 30 minutes and commit to one task. If you don’t feel like doing it, you will do nothing. Your Dark Horse will give you some wild suggestions: you are thirsty, check your email, what’s on the news? This is Dark Horse talk; ignore it. After resisting the impulse for a little while, you will eventually get into the groove and get busy with the task at hand.
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