The Back to Work episode Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys, touched on one of my absolute favorite topics: time and attention. Specifically a new (to me) aspect, which Merlin called the Attention Stack.

Attention Stack

  1. Attention
  2. Cognition
  3. Thoughts and Feelings
  4. Decision Making

So the basic idea behind the Attention Stack is your attention defines your cognition (the ongoing process of collecting knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses), your cognition helps define your thoughts and feelings, which result in your decisions.

The challenge with this, when you are stuck in a pattern of making poor decisions, is determining the root cause. Merlin concluded this is due to the fuzziness of thoughts and feelings — meaning it’s hard to conclude what exactly led you to that thought or feeling. This is because Attention and Cognition can feel so minuscule and fleeting in the moment — but they accumulate in a way that build habits and beliefs without much thought on your part.

Be aware of what you are paying attention to. What you pay attention to a lot and spend your time, as a result, will have an effect on you and the differences will be hard to notice at first. — Merlin Mann

Merlin had a great analogy on this point: his well-worn jeans have an outline of his iPhone impressed into the denim. It would be virtually impossible to pinpoint the exact moment that impression stuck, but the repetitive and consistent nature of him placing his phone in the same pocket day-in and day-out led to the impression.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘right attention’ lately, so the timing is impeccable. It’s an aspect of Buddhism, whether you call it mindfulness, attention, intention, or any other aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s a huge aspect for me, not only because it’s the key to productivity, but also keeping a healthy perspective on life and a focus on what’s important to me.

Specifically I’ve been thinking a lot about what I spend my time on, how it affects my perspective, and the value the activity provides. This can be Twitter, RSS, Facebook, Instagram, TV, or any of the myriad of sources of noise you come in contact with during the day. There are certainly way too many inputs each day and quite honestly most of it is garbage.

A lot of this “information” plays off your emotional reaction, which helps reinforce the attention choice. Merlin hit the nail on the head:

If you pay attention to bits of information that give you a spike of emotion, it’s going to train you to keep seeking out choppy bits of information that are discontiguous. — Merlin Mann

This can manifest itself in many ways: politics certainly does it for me, as does articles on productivity, YouTube rat holes, and many other guilty pleasures. For you it could be things like pictures of your friend’s kids, pictures of cute things, Buzzfeed articles, listicles, or the he said/she said “news” you find in pop culture magazines.

The problem is, feeding your brain this candy (through those short little bursts of emotion) not only increases it’s need for more candy, but it builds a habit where it’s gradually robbing you of time and attention and sending you down a slippery cognitive slope. This is where the idea of “Fear of Missing Out” (FOMO) creeps in to your brain.

It makes sense that continued exposure to pop culture would leave you feeling inadequate (not rich enough, not skinny enough, not good looking enough, etc) or that exposure to negative information, which is all too common in the news cycle, leaves you viewing the world through a negative lens. It’s no different than Merlin’s phone/jeans analogy — it’s a slow burn.

So I think it comes down to being mindful of how you are spending your time and what you choose to spend your time doing. I think some basic criteria can help me make better decisions.

I believe worthwhile activities should fit at least one of the following:

  • Provide value  — For me, value is either teaching me something, helping me see the world in a different way, or provide me with information that is essential to meeting the other criteria.
  • Be a meaningful connection — Preferably with someone I care about. This is spending time with my wife, kids, friends, family, etc.
  • Help me achieve a goal I have set for myself — this is where my Love List comes into play.
  • Accomplish a task  — Work, chores, errands, etc. The important stuff. Definitely not checking off ‘Look for latest grumpy cat pic’ on my todo list.

Then, three days into writing this post, I came across this Creative Mornings talk from Brad Frost:

Brad’s talk covers the massive increase in creation of content, books, video, and photos, in which (for many examples) the 2012 output equaled around 10% of the entire world’s all-time creative output for the specific medium. So insane. And it’s only getting worse.

When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive. — James Gleick

He then goes on to show examples of all the “bullshit” we have to deal with on the internet and everyday life. In most all cases, I agree 100%. The video fit so perfectly with where I was going with this post. Anyway, be sure to watch the talk.

The key takeaways from his talk, in terms of how to battle the bullshit:

  • Focus. (Hand crafting your attention and cognition, as Merlin mentioned in his podcast.)
  • Appreciate craft, quality, and experience.
  • Pay for services that provide value.
  • Respect other people’s time.

I think Focus comes from #2 and #3. Spend your time and attention searching out and using quality. A lot of the time #2 requires you to do #3: paying for services that respect you and your time. It’s why I use Apple products, Fever for RSS, Fastmail for email, as examples. These services, hardware, and software respect your privacy (or at least do a way better job than competitors), give you control over your data, and/or provide experiences that put the user first and not other (read: advertising) interests.

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. — Andrew Lewis

And finally, the last point: Respect other people’s time. Not only can we help others by curating the stuff we share (quality over quantity), but we can also make better decisions about who we share things with on a regular basis. Merlin had a great analogy that fits this, where he called each message you send a ‘pebble’, meaning it’s lightweight and easy to deliver. But the problem is, the recipient might have just received 100 pebbles from various sources. That’s an outcome you very rarely take into consideration when you hit send.

I don’t want to come off sounding militant on this subject (I do believe there’s a time and place for most everything), but I do think that, given all we are bombarded with each day, we need a reminder to step back and re-evaluate choices when it comes to time and attention. It’s easy to get caught in that slippery cognitive slope that slowly changes how you see yourself and the world.

Plus, I think once you start evaluating where you spend your time, you appreciate how valuable your time and attention really is… and how much real, valuable stuff you can create in those moments where you are not bombarded with low value inputs.

I, for one, am going to work hard to do a better job of this in the future. Join me?


I am a patient boy.

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