The Most Important Skill You Forgot

Today, the world around us is being designed to steal our attention away.

We’re bombarded with things wanting access to our heads. And to be sure the message gets across, those firing the canons also shout, “You should really think about this DO something!”

Buy this! Vote that! Don’t vote that! Do something about this! Facebook sucks! Get active for my good cause! Jeans are so out of fashion! Be nicer to your spouse! Follow Maarten van Doorn on Medium!

People talking about us behind our back, political developments and work-related stuff are just one click away. Due to the transition into a digital attention-economy, the natural boundaries for input have disappeared. Anything and anyone can get to us, anytime.

The hard truth is, we are the first generation for whom living well is impossible if we don’t actively manage our attention.

The problem is we don’t know how to do that.

You must figure out what’s important to you

“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” — John Maxwell

We need to re-erect the boundary between attention-grabbing and important, but we have no clue what material to use for building the fences. We don’t know what would justify us drawing this boundary and not that, letting this in our mental space but excluding that. What lets the right things through, and keeps the right things out?

Sometimes feeling that it’s all just arbitrary, we’re left in a state of vertigo, numb, unable to decide:

“With no bedrock of certainty about what counts as a successful life, any choice to live a life may come to seem arbitrary. The result is often uncertainty or a sense of imbalance, because not only don’t you know what kind of life to live, you don’t know what, if anything, can give you certainty.” — Carl Elliott, Better Than Well

For many this causes massive stress. So let’s face it.

In the Great War For Attention, there are more inputs that we can possibly process. That means we’ll need to reject some demands on our time.

No, your blog/website/product/cause/company/conference/e-mail is not going to get concern. I’m sorry.

When you do this, people will disagree with what you deem to be worth caring about and what not. They will scream at you. Louder. And fire more cannon-balls. Harder.

We find our way out of the war-zone by looking in:

“[In making such fundamental judgments,] it is not exactly that I have no yardstick, in the sense that anything goes, but rather that what takes the place of a yardstick is my deepest unstructured sense of what it is important.” — Charles Taylor

And actually, for the sake of this problem, it doesn’t even matter that much what your “sense of what is important” tells you. As long as you tap into it. You need to figure out which things matter to you. It’s the only method for managing your attention that’s successful in the long term.

Why the only one? Because the only robust justification for rejecting people’s claims on our attention in favor of other claims is an appeal to our personally held values. To be able to erect firm boundaries, you need to figure out what’s truly important to you.


“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” — John Maxwell

A natural starting place is deciding which things we care enough about to spend time on.

Especially when it comes to ‘Getting Things Done’, we are very prone to slip into the “collection mode”:

“Once you start to accumulate you are caught in this collection mode, which is, you’ll always find a reason to think that you need more and fail to realize that it in fact is taking away from something, from time with your kids or time sitting in the backyard reading another book, … .” — Ricardo Semler

Figuring out what’s truly important to us will tell us which projects are worth these sacrifices.

Many people haven’t answered that question and as a result, spend too much time on optimizing their strategy, and not enough on questioning whether they’re chasing worthwhile aims in the first place.

If you spend large chunks of your day on unimportant work, it’s no wonder that you feel overwhelmed by the important work.

After you’ve figured out what’s truly important for you now, you can tell people:

“This is me. This is what I do. This is what I don’t engage with.”

Because this judgment will be value-based, it allows us to be at peace with the inevitable opportunity costs that come with such a choice. On the other side of the same coin, because it’s value-based, it allows us to be fair with the people we reject.

Then, and only then, will the cannon-balls stop coming.


“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” — John Maxwell

And there’s more to it. Over and above choosing on which things to spend time on, this is also about choosing which things you’re willing to suffer for (in the ‘first-world-problems’ sense of the term).

“‘Do I care enough to experience discomfort to get to the other side?’ If I don’t, then I should turn off the input. Because sitting with an uncomfortable input when we don’t care enough to make things better is just a formula to be unhappy.” — Seth Godin on the Tim Ferriss Show

What Seth means is this: part of judging something to be important is caring about it. We need to be care-ful with what we choose to care about, as this comes with a commitment to refuse to accept certain things. Non-acceptance makes us unhappy.

Something might be so important to me right now that I can’t accept it, and that now I’m going to put up with a mental battle for it. Then I realize that that’s where I’ve chosen to be unhappy.

The challenge is to limit non-acceptance to conscious non-acceptance and unhappiness to mindful unhappiness.

Do this

Knowing your Why provides you with the inner freedom to do what you believe and to cultivate the ‘subtle art of not giving a fuck’ about other things. To do something for your own reasons, and not for someone else’s. To thrive in today’s attention economy, you must get to the bottom of what this means for you.

In other words, you need to decide where and how you draw your line.

So here’s the one thing that you should do: be more like a kid.

When kids ask Why? and then Why? and then Why?, they’re trying to … get down to the first principles underneath so they can weigh how much they should actually care about what the adults [/people claiming our attention] seem so insistent upon. — Tim Urban, WaitButWhy

We’ve forgotten how to ask that profound question.

Want to get a head start in the game of life and get back into the why-mindset? Then, right now, spend 10 minutes writing down your deepest values.

The rest is not important.