Be a Good Neighbor In an Attention Economy

These days, everyone has too much on their minds. Gone are the days when woke up, went to the factory, put in your time, came home, and sat down with a selection from the three TV shows on that night. Gone, too, are the days when a long-distance call from grandma in Wisconsin was an event, something to look forward to and to put everything on hold for. Or when a letter from a college buddy was a big deal. Or when your choices at the supermarket were the store brand, the off-brand, and the “leading brand”.

Today, there are a million different voices screaming for everyone’s attention, all the time, and all at once. Email, RSS, SMS, cable TV, bus wraps, websites, billboards, product placements, sign spinners, paid shelf placements, logowear, radio, iTunes, Pandora, windshield flyers, magazines, book superstores, warehouse stores, 100,000 brand names in your face all over the place. And they’re all designed to say one thing: “Pay attention to me!”

We talk all the time at lifehack.org about controlling the inputs into your life — about dealing with information overload, batch processing your email, power-churning your RSS feeds, minimizing distractions, and so on. But it’s not enough — if you still clog everyone else’s inboxes with your own pleas for attention, you’re making things worse for everyone. So how can you stop being part of the problem and start being part of the cure?

Keep it down to a dull roar

Being a “good neighbor” in today’s “attention economy” means to reduce your demands on other people’s time — not eliminate it. Let’s face it: you want and need attention. You want to be recognized for the things you’re good at (which may, after all, be how you make a living), you want help with the things you’re not good at, and you want sympathy for the things no amount of help can make better.

You’ll make everyone else’s life easier — and get more attention when it’s important — if you make sure that your calls for attention are reserved for when it’s truly necessary.

Practice empathy

Always be aware of your impact on others. Look out for signs of annoyance, impatience, or a wandering mind — these are sure signs that they’re at the end of their attention. People will pay attention to what you have to say only as long as they think it matters to them to do so — or that it will matter. You need to be sensitive to what will be important to someone paying attention to you — and if you can’t think of anything, let them be.

Do less

I know, heresy on a personal productivity site, but I’m saying it nonetheless. Doing less means you have less to put in front of people, less they have to pay attention to.

There’s a common condition people face when confronted with choices called “decision paralysis”. Give someone a choice between what they’re doing now and something clearly better, and they’ll usually take the clearly better thing. But give them a choice between what they’re doing now and two things that are clearly better, and they freeze — in studies, the majority of people confronted with this kind of situation chose to keep doing the clearly inferior thing they were already doing!

Doing lots of things and demanding that people pay attention to all of them creates a similar situation. It’s the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome — you overwhelm your listener’s ability to distinguish between what’s worth paying attention to and what isn’t.

By doing less, too, you create scarcity — of whatever it is you do but, more significantly, of you. What you do do becomes more valuable, worth paying more attention to.

But do it well

Of course, doing less doesn’t matter if what you do isn’t worth paying attention to anyway. If what you do is produce yet another reality show, please do it less, but don’t expect anyone to be anything other than relieved.

Take the time you’re not spending on doing more, and that you’re not spending on trying to win everyone’s attention for everything you do, and use it to make whatever you make more worth paying attention to. Let excellence speak for you.

Be still waters

You know that old saying, “Still waters run deep”? I don’t know if it’s true or not (though if you are “still waters”, it certainly doesn’t hurt that others think you’re deep). I do know that if you’re not making a lot of muss and fuss, you’re not using up anyone else’s bandwidth.

As much as possible, minimize your outputs. Send less email, tweet less, post fewer updates — generally eliminate your “uploads” except for the most important and meaningful.

I’m not asking you to drop out of the communication system entirely, just to practice some self-discipline. Adopt the policy at five.sentence.es — “all email responses regardless of recipient or subject will be five sentences or less.” As you build up your short email mojo, you can switch over to four, three, and ultimately two.sentenc.es. Apply the principle of five.sentenc.es in other areas, too. In the immortal words of Zorro, “Get in, make your Z, and get out.”

The right tool for the job

One of the reasons we lean so heavily on the attention of those around us is that we use the wrong medium to communicate through. We send emails about things we need done immediately; we make phone calls — or worse, schedule meetings — about issues that need to be handled in writing; we try to compress the gist of a conversation into a 160-character text message; and so on.

Here are a few ideas about what tool is best for what purpose:

  • Email: Email is easily the most abused communication tool in our modern-day toolbox. Use email for two things: references (documents, meeting notes, etc.) and non-time-bound communication. Stop forwarding jokes, virus warnings, and petitions! Email’s advantage is that it’s non-interruptive; your recipient can deal with it on their own time. The disadvantage is that it’s easy — there’s little effort involved to send one. Which leads us to use email for all kind of contacts that, if we had to work at it, we wouldn’t bother with.
  • Phone: Use the phone when it’s imperative that action be taken immediately. A phone call is interruptive; the person you’re trying to connect with has to drop what they’re doing to talk to you, so make it worthwhile. Sometimes you’ll get voice mail; the same rules that apply to email apply to voice mail: keep it short, clear, and focused.

    Give your name, your number, a quick summary of the reason for your call, and your number again.

  • Face-to-face: Talk face-to-face when details need to be worked out and a phone call would not allow enough expression. It’s ok to make a reasonable amount of chit-chat, but move quickly to your point, and don’t get hung up on closing the conversation.
  • Instant messaging: Use in the same situation you’d talk face-to-face, when personal presence is not possible. Beware: chat time is different from real time — keep an eye on the clock, and don’t dawdle.
  • Meeting: Meetings are only useful when significant participation from three or more people is necessary. Have a clear agenda, start two or three minutes after the scheduled time, condense support material into a handout or a brief presentation, and open the floor with clear questions and/or a call to action. Remember, people hate meetings.
  • Blog/Wiki: Use for long-term storage of reference information, and other non-time-dependent communication.
  • SMS: Use SMS for “ping” contacts — quick questions, “I’m thinking of you” notes for people close to you, that sort of thing.

Master channels

Pick two or three channels to communicate through, and master them. Don’t fumble around trying to learn twenty different systems — you’ll waste your time, and you’ll waste your listeners’ time while you get the hang of the new medium.

This means, pick one IM system you can use easily (nowadays, a good multiplatform IM client like Pidgin is the best bet). Funnel all your email through one program or online service — Gmail, or Outlook, or whatever works best for you. Avoid sending messages through the interface of every forum, social network, and membership site you belong to — find an email address and contact them off-site. If that’s not possible, pick one such site to focus your efforts on, and let anyone who needs to reach you know that you’re on x, not y.

Stay on target… Stay on target…

Consider the needs of your listener, and tailor your message to those needs. Decide whether they need to hear your message at all. I recently got a message asking if I wanted to interview the author of a “how to be a playah”-type book. If the sender had done any research, they’d know that, as a Women’s Studies professor, I was probably not gong to be all that interested. Waaaay off target!

Seek permission

There are a lot of ways that permission is granted; you don’t always have to ask if you can take some attention. That’s where empathy comes in — you have to sense when permission is implied, even when it’s not granted directly.

That said, if you find yourself relying on interruption to get people’s attention, you probably don’t have permission. If it’s essential, you’ll have to go the extra mile to earn their attention; if it’s not essential, consider keeping whatever you have to say to yourself.

Consider television: most of what you see advertised on TV is entirely non-essential. It’s unlikely we’d go seeking information on the latest fast-food promotion or what class action suit we should consider joining. So to give us this information, advertisers rely on interruption — giving us something we want to pay attention to, and then stealing our attention.

Nobody likes that. We endured it — until YouTube and similar services offered us a way around it. If you’ve built your career around interrupting people, you might want to reconsider your career — before the YouTube of your discipline

reconsiders it for you.

Thanks for your attention

Do the world a favor: be a good neighbor and let the people around you conserve their attention for the things that truly matter to them. Sometimes that will be you — your product, your services, your needs.

But often it won’t. Not consuming more attention than you need isn’t just good for them, though — it’s good for you. It makes your message that much stronger, and it also makes the people around you more productive — and can make you more productive. By being stingy with other people’s attention, you set a good example, one that others will follow. By modeling ideal practices, you show others a way to handle their own affairs. Which in the long run means less demands on your attention. And even if it doesn’t, you’ll have been a good neighbor and a good citizen, and there’s satisfaction in that.

Got any tips of your own to share with our readers about being frugal with other people’s attention? Let us know in the comments.

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