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How to Be a Good Neighbor In an Attention Economy

How to Be a Good Neighbor In an Attention Economy
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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Last Updated on March 14, 2019

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

Recruiters might hold thousands of interviews in their careers and a lot of them are reporting the same thing—that most candidates play it safe with the questions they ask, or have no questions to ask in a job interview at all.

For job applicants, this approach is crazy! This is a job that you’re going to dedicate a lot of hours to and that might have a huge impact on your future career. Don’t throw away the chance to figure out if the position is perfect for you.

Here are 7 killer questions to ask in a job interview that will both impress your counterpart and give you some really useful insights into whether this job will be a dream … or a nightmare.

1. What are some challenges I might come up against this role?

A lesser candidate might ask, “what does a typical day look like in this role?” While this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask in an interview, focusing on potential challenges takes you much further because it indicates that you already are visualizing yourself in the role.

It’s impressive because it shows that you are not afraid of challenges, and you are prepared to strategize a game plan upfront to make sure you succeed if you get the job.

It can also open up a conversation about how you’ve solved problems in the past which can be a reassuring exercise for both you and the hiring manager.

How it helps you:

If you ask the interviewer to describe a typical day, you may get a vibrant picture of all the lovely things you’ll get to do in this job and all the lovely people you’ll get to do them with.

Asking about potential roadblocks means you hear the other side of the story—dysfunctional teams, internal politics, difficult clients, bootstrap budgets and so on. This can help you decide if you’re up for the challenge or whether, for the sake of your sanity, you should respectfully decline the job offer.

2. What are the qualities of really successful people in this role?

Employers don’t want to hire someone who goes through the motions; they want to hire someone who will excel.

Asking this question shows that you care about success, too. How could they not hire you with a dragon-slayer attitude like that?

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How it helps you:

Interviewers hire people who are great people to work with, but the definition of “great people” differs from person to person.

Does this company hire and promote people with a specific attitude, approach, worth ethic or communication style? Are the most successful people in this role strong extroverts who love to talk and socialize when you are studious and reserved? Does the company reward those who work insane hours when you’re happiest in a more relaxed environment?

If so, then this may not be the right match for you.

Whatever the answer is, you can decide whether you have what it takes for the manager to be happy with your performance in this role. And if the interviewer has no idea what success looks like for this position, this is a sign to proceed with extreme caution.

3. From the research I did on your company, I noticed the culture really supports XYZ. Can you tell me more about that element of the culture and how it impacts this job role?

Of course, you could just ask “what is the culture like here? ” but then you would miss a great opportunity to show that you’ve done your research!

Interviewers give BIG bonus point to those who read up and pay attention, and you’ve just pointed out that (a) you’re diligent in your research (b) you care about the company culture and (c) you’re committed to finding a great cultural fit.

How it helps you:

This question is so useful because it lets you pick an element of the culture that you really care about and that will have the most impact on whether you are happy with the organization.

For example, if training and development is important to you, then you need to know what’s on offer so you don’t end up in a dead-end job with no learning opportunities.

Companies often talk a good talk, and their press releases may be full of shiny CSR initiatives and all the headline-grabbing diversity programs they’re putting in place. This is your opportunity to look under the hood and see if the company lives its values on the ground.

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A company that says it is committed to doing the right thing by customers should not judge success by the number of up-sells an employee makes, for instance. Look for consistency, so you aren’t in for a culture shock after you start.

4. What is the promotion path for this role, and how would my performance on that path be measured?

To be clear, you are not asking when you will get promoted. Don’t go there—it’s presumptuous, and it indicates that you think you are better than the role you have applied for.

A career-minded candidate, on the other hand, usually has a plan that she’s working towards. This question shows you have a great drive toward growth and advancement and an intention to stick with the company beyond your current state.

How it helps you:

One word: hierarchy.

All organizations have levels of work and authority—executives, upper managers, line managers, the workforce, and so on. Understanding the hierarchical structure gives you power, because you can decide if you can work within it and are capable of climbing through its ranks, or whether it will be endlessly frustrating to you.

In a traditional pyramid hierarchy, for example, the people at the bottom tend to have very little autonomy to make decisions. This gets better as you rise up through the pyramid, but even middle managers have little power to create policy; they are more concerned with enforcing the rules the top leaders make.

If having a high degree of autonomy and accountability is important to you, you may do better in a flat hierarchy where work teams can design their own way of achieving the corporate goals.

5. What’s the most important thing the successful candidate could accomplish in their first 3 months/6 months/year?

Of all the questions to ask in a job interview, this one is impressive because it shows that you identify with and want to be a successful performer, and not just an average one.

Here, you’re drilling down into what the company needs, and needs quite urgently, proving that you’re all about adding value to the organization and not just about what’s in it for you.

How it helps you:

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Most job descriptions come with 8, 10 or 12 different job responsibilities and a lot of them with be boilerplate or responsibilities that someone in HR thinks are associated with this role. This question gives you a better sense of which responsibilities are the most important—and they may not be what initially attracted you to the role.

If you like the idea of training juniors, for example, but success is judged purely on your sales figures, then is this really the job you thought you were applying for?

This question will also give you an idea of what kind of learning curve you’re expected to have and whether you’ll get any ramp-up time before getting down to business. If you’re the type of person who likes to jump right in and get things done, for instance, you may not be thrilled to hear that you’re going to spend the first three months shadowing a peer.

6. What do you like about working here?

This simple question is all about building rapport with the interviewer. People like to talk about themselves, and the interviewer will be flattered that you’re interested in her opinions.

Hopefully, you’ll find some great connection points that the two of you share. What similar things drive you head into the office each day? How will you fit into the culture?

How it helps you:

You can learn a lot from this question. Someone who genuinely enjoys his job will be able to list several things they like, and their answers will sound passionate and sincere. If not….well, you might consider that a red flag.

Since you potentially can learn a lot about the company culture from this question, it’s a good idea to figure out upfront what’s important to you. Maybe you’re looking for a hands-off boss who values independent thought and creativity? Maybe you work better in environments that move at a rapid, exciting pace?

Whatever’s important to you, listen carefully and see if you can find any common ground.

7. Based on this interview, do you have any questions or concerns about my qualifications for the role?

What a great closing question to ask in a job interview! It shows that you’re not afraid of feedback—in fact, you are inviting it. Not being able to take criticism is a red flag for employers, who need to know that you’ll act on any “coaching moments” with a good heart.

As a bonus, asking this question shows that you are really interested in the position and wish to clear up anything that may be holding the company back from hiring you.

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How it helps you:

What a devious beast this question is! On the surface, it looks straightforward, but it’s actually giving you four key pieces of information.

First, is the manager capable of giving you feedback when put on the spot like this? Some managers are scared of giving feedback, or don’t think it’s important enough to bother outside of a formal performance appraisal. Do you want to work for a boss like that? How will you improve if no one is telling you what you did wrong?

Second, can the manager give feedback in a constructive way without being too pillowy or too confrontational? It’s unfair to expect the interviewer to have figured out your preferred way of receiving feedback in the space of an interview, but if she come back with a machine-gun fire of shortcomings or one of those corporate feedback “sandwiches” (the doozy slipped between two slices of compliment), then you need to ask yourself, can you work with someone who gives feedback like that?

Third, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about before you leave the interview. This gives you the chance to make a final, tailored sales pitch so you can convince the interviewer that she should not be worried about those things.

Fourth, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about period. If turnover is keeping him up at night, then your frequent job hopping might get a lot of additional scrutiny. If he’s facing some issues with conflict or communication, then he might raise concerns regarding your performance in this area.

Listen carefully: the concerns that are being raised about you might actually be a proxy for problems in the wider organization.

Making Your Interview Work for You

Interviews are a two-way street. While it is important to differentiate yourself from every other candidate, understand that convincing the interviewer you’re the right person for the role goes hand-in-hand with figuring out if the job is the right fit for you.

Would you feel happy in a work environment where the people, priorities, culture and management style were completely at odds with the way you work? Didn’t think so!

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Featured photo credit: Amy Hirschi via unsplash.com

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