Advertising
Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

More by this author

Back to Basics: Your Calendar Learn Something New Every Day 10 Tips for More Effective PowerPoint Presentations How to Improve Your Spelling Skills 11 Ways to Think Outside the Box

Trending in Communication

1The Gentle Art of Saying No 217 Ted Talks for Kids to Inspire Little Minds to Do Big Things 310 Toxic Persons You Should Just Get Rid Of 4Striving Towards Secure Attachment: How to Restructure Your Thoughts 5Being Self Aware Is the Key to Success: How to Boost Self Awareness

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising

The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

Advertising

But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

Advertising

What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

Advertising

But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Advertising

Read Next