Forget Money and Power; Covet Time and Attention
“Time is the ultimate luxury.”
When my Tesla S-driving, Panerai watch-wearing, Venice Beach-living friend said that the other day, I leaned in. Despite living on the Pacific Ocean and rocking a dream job, my buddy also often found himself harried and hurried by constant work trips, 80 hour weeks and 1 youngster at home with one on the way. He was lifestyle-rich and time-poor.
His observation prompted some soul-searching. What are the most valuable resources in the world today? If you answered power and money, I wouldn’t blame you; that’s what pop culture and cable news suggest with their coverage of Washington and Wall Street every day. Maybe wealth and influence aren’t everything in life, though. I’ve come to believe that the most precious of personal assets are time and attention.
Our energy level is renewable from food, sleep and, as I’ve learned, iced mochas. Looks fade. Celebrity waxes and wanes. Health is a negative commodity — which is a fancy way of saying that we don’t value it until we lose it (like membership in the EU for Londoners).
Time is the only non-renewable strategic resource. Money can be earned or printed; power can be lost and gained; but time, once elapsed, can never be regained.
Our time is precious but we don’t always treat it as such. How many hours did you spend online this week, for instance? If you’re typical, it was 23, according to a recent report. I’m worse than average, which means that I will allocate over 1,200 hours this year — the equivalent of 150 eight-hour days — to reading Medium … but also checking out movie trailers on YouTube.
How about TV watching? I try to limit myself to 10 hours a week (the Canadian average is 30!). I succeed most of the time, but with my beloved Habs starting their playoff run in April, I’m not confident I’ll keep that discipline. Web or channel surfing are not complete wastes of time, to be sure. But are these the best uses of this precious resource?
And what about attention? First, let’s be clear: attention is another way of saying “focus.” You give it to someone when you listen to them fully, and to some activity when you do it without simultaneously trying to do another (forget the myth of “multitasking”; in almost every instance you think you’re pulling it off, you’re not).
Why is it so important? Every action we take requires our full engagement for it to be successful or significant. The problem is that there have never been more things tugging at our attention. Right now, I bet you’re feeling the pull of that tweet, that text message, or that other tab on your browser bar. Later, when you’re offline, will you be fully present for your daughter’s lacrosse game if you’re also on the phone with a friend?
The opposite of focus is distraction, and I find myself distracted a lot these days. More often, I suffer from the very modern, omnipresent variant of this mind state a Microsoft executive once called “continuous partial attention.”
There is a titanic struggle going on today for our time and attention — not just from within us, but also by the people and products that dominate our world. Your boss demands them. Your husband and kids want them. Google and Facebook fight over them. HBO and CNN take turns attracting them.
Your time and attention are clearly valuable economic commodities. But have we put the right price on these two prized possessions? After all, they’re both limited, scarce and — whether we’re conscious of it or not — involve trade-offs. That 10 minutes I spent surfing Instagram is the same 10 minutes that I could use right now to get to that breakfast meeting on time. Did that lunch with your friend yesterday feel a bit unsatisfying because they were checking their iPhone every time there was a beep?
More philosophically, nothing is possible without them. You might find yourself someday in front of the most beautiful sunset, but if you don’t take the time to direct your attention there…it might as well have been cloudy.
We have to reframe the way we look at both time and attention. Systems like GTD and websites like Lifehacker have created a cottage industry of “productivity porn” to help you “manage” time. I think that’s the wrong metaphor. You can’t actually administer time — you can only invest it. That goes for attention as well.
It helps me to think of time and attention that way — in terms of investment returns and what economists call opportunity costs. Before you do something, ask the counter-question: what else can I do with that time or focus? What is the most valuable investment of my time and attention right now?
I struggle with this every day — often dozens of times a day. But I force myself to think of the big picture not just from time to time, but all the time. Deciding what to focus on is the biggest challenge we face today. We can all be more mindful and intentional about investing these two most precious resources on those people and projects that are most important to us.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve given me the gift of your time and attention. Thank you; I know exactly how valuable that is. Do you?
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