Zen and the Art of Attention

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.

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