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Summary:

Conventional web wisdom (CWW) says we’re suffering from infomania and so we need to firewall our attention. But what if the CWW is wrong? What if the answer to too much information is not a contraction of our attention but rather a relaxation of the grip […]

cow.jpgConventional web wisdom (CWW) says we’re suffering from infomania and so we need to firewall our attention. But what if the CWW is wrong? What if the answer to too much information is not a contraction of our attention but rather a relaxation of the grip we use to control the meandering of our minds?

One of my favorite Zen sayings goes like this:

To control your cow, put it in a large pasture.

Maybe we need to give our attention more grazing room: stop trying to limit the number of feeds we follow, forget about the voice inside our heads that says we must answer every email, consider attention as a flow rather than a fixed and scarce resource.

Steve Rubel, representing the CWW, wonders if attention overload and people’s response to it might result in a sort of attention recession:

I think this issue is an epidemic. We have too many demands on our attention and the rapid success of Tim’s book indicates that people will start to cut back on the information they are gorging.

If this happens en masse, will it cause a financial pullback? Possibly if ad revenues sag as a result.

Stowe Boyd, on the other hand, suggests new rules that treat attention less as a fixed and scarce resource and consider it as a flow instead:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.

That last point seems especially important: in an unpredictably bursty world, how can you possibly know which 20% of what you’re reading and doing is what could leap you to a new and more satisfying place? A more fluid approach — a bigger pasture — may offer a better shot at success.

Still, when my Google Reader subscriptions disappeared briefly this week, I felt a deep sense of relief. So while the big pasture approach to attention management sounds good in the abstract, there’s something comforting about the idea of putting my attentional cow back into the stable.

  1. I’ve no idea how many feeds I subscribe to (how can I find out in NNWLite?), but it’s got to be over 700. I get about 70 new items an hour anyway. I pretty much subscribe to every blog that has more than one post on the front page that I’m interested in.

    I guess if I was a theoretical ideal productive person I’d get more done if I didn’t look at this stuff, but I’m not! As an imperfect person I get more done if I’m skipping from thing to thing instead of turning everything off and focusing on my article/image/web page.

    Stowe’s point 2 I agree with though. I did cut down vastly on the amount of news I subcribed to, reasoning that if it’s at all interesting it will show up on the BBC or Digg.

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  2. I like Stowe’s suggestions, but I think our current feed readers are going to prove to be very primitive tools in the long run. We’re reading the raw, unfiltered output of hundreds of people, with very little being done to summarize, group related topics, or show link patterns, unless maybe you’re willing to only read the things TechMeme decides are important (too heavy on the big corporate end of things for my tastes). No wonder it’s exhausting trying to keep up.

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  3. Stowe does make the point that the current generation of feed readers pretty much suck — and that’s probably what I was responding to when I felt relief at my Google Reader subscriptions disappearing.

    I’m spending more time outside of the RSS reader these days. TechMeme mostly bores me. I’ve been spending extra time looking at what my Del.icio.us network comes up with. It’s heavily filtered but still has an element of serendipitous discovery to it.

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  4. Great article! I like the positive interpretation of nomadic reading and letting your mind wander. It often does lead to insights. But there is a point at which you have to balance the meaning and purpose of your meandering. It’s good to give your cow a big pasture, as long as there is grass in it.

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  5. [...] Zen and the Art of Attention – Web Worker Daily [...]

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  6. Awesome suggestions. I think the root issue is in this sentence, “We have too many demands on our attention.” The issue is the perception as attention grabbers as demands rather than invitations. The mind gets exhausted when it feels it must respond, not when it chooses to respond. Folks may demand my attention to their heart’s content. The problems come when I participate in the story that those demands inherently have authority. They simply don’t.

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  7. [...] your nerves; or if you think you are feeling the information overload, it is time for you to under The Zen & The Art of Attention. Over on Web Worker Daily, Anne Zelenka has some counter intuitive [...]

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  8. It’s a mind shift that is required here.

    I have over 1000 feeds pouring into Google Reader. I do not, and am comfortable with the fact that I will never, read them all. But if I decide to pursue a thought or notion, I know I can start there and have a lot of the research already done.

    Learning to ignore that ‘unread items’ count is the hardest part, and one thing I find amazing is how few of these applications let you turn that OFF. If I don’t “care” how many unread items are in a folder then.. stop telling me!

    As for deciding which 20% you should be reading, well sometimes the gem is linking two items in that 80% and realising they could take you somewhere interesting, that’s what keeps my RSS feed count so high, even if I do ignore most of it.

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  9. In spite of all this, there are those who subscribe to the “Attention Economy” as outlined in the Harvard Business Press book of the same name. Our ‘attention demands’ are constantly being bombarded and marketers and others look for ways to exploit it across all medias. This is a good resource for the consumer and every-day-webworker. Thanks, -Ebrown

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  10. [...] your nerves; or if you think you are feeling the information overload, it is time for you to under The Zen & The Art of Attention. Over on Web Worker Daily, Anne Zelenka has some counter intuitive [...]

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