Attention Management

These are the decision-guiding notes of Andy Mitchell, maker of Breef and ActiveInbox (which has supported him, and later a small team, for 15 years). They’re mostly the ideas of others, distilled into what I found to work. It’s not prescriptive of ‘the right way’, but I hope you find bits you can apply day to day.

Problem

  • Harvard Business Review ran a somewhat mystical headline,
    “to control your life, control what you pay attention to”
  • It’s true, except… what should you pay attention to?
  • I know that’s personal, but are there commonalities? A cheatsheet?

Solution

  • Virtually no one takes a long term view. In compounding - which is what you’re doing with your skills and assets - the greatest gains come towards the end. Build leverage for a pay off in 20 years.
  • Apply the ultimate prioritizing question: “What can I do now, such that it makes everything later easier?
    • Let small opportunities pass you by in favour of step changes.
    • Timebox bullshit. It’s much more important to work on the thing that matters, than to work all hours. Make a list for “everything else” and set aside 1 hour a day. Find practical workflows in Deep Work and Getting Things Done.
    • Resist the allure of status. The world divides into those who play status games (zero sum pie), and those who play wealth games (unlimited pie). Status gamers win by putting others down. Don’t get sucked into their status competition, they’ll drag you down to a lesser game.
  • The depth of talent in your network defines your career.
    • “Networking” is over-rated. Shallow acquaintances don’t support each other.
    • Help people as much as you can. That includes sharing the upside generously. Support those with smarts, energy and creativity, and unlock whatever they desire or holds them back. Their rate of improvement will make up for any current skill shortage.
    • Years of studies have shown “tit for tat iterated prisoner’s dilemma” - aka “do unto others as they do to you” - is the only winning strategy, and the only piece of game theory you need to know. Build trust with those who earn it.
    • Tend to your reputation like a garden. It’s a sad fact of life for lovers of substance, but prestige opens doors. That’s not the same as getting sucked into status games.
  • It’s too hard to be the best at one thing. You can’t outrun Usain Bolt. But you can be great at 2-3 things and in combination carve your unique talent.
    • Where we focus > 50% makes us superstars at that. (<10% gets us fired).
    • It’s not just about more skills. Saying “hello” in 30 languages won’t make you more successful. It’s about skills that stack together.
    • Don’t pick skills where someone will be as proficient as you’ll ever be after 4 years. Pick skills and relationships that deepen over the years.
    • Stay curious. It puts you on a path to discovery of cutting-edge skills that are uniquely yours. Develop judgement as one of your skills. In time you’ll get good at following your curiosity into things that are likely to pay off. Accept that you’ll make missteps at first. Start anyway.
  • Beware…
    • Of being a perfectionist. Don’t delay opportunities, it keeps you trapped: you’re afraid of not being good enough, so you don’t try, so you don’t grow, so you aren’t good enough. Jump.
    • Of procrastination. It’s poor emotional regulation. We want the short-term reward over the long term success. Break big scary things down.

Opportunities for Leverage

  • Until recently people had to fight in status games to win existing leverage. How many people can you employ or how much land can you hold?
  • The internet, alongside infinitely-replicable digital media, made it feasible for someone of talent to create leverage, to add to the pool of utility.
  • Wealth is any asset that earns while you sleep. It’s not just money. It’s products and media: podcasts, blogs, video, books, software.
  • The scale of the interconnectivity makes even the weirdest niches serviceable.
  • New opportunity waves keep coming. Technology constantly smashes up the old order creating new gaps (e.g. radio > tv > personal computing > the internet > smart phones > AI).
  • As nations move up Maslow’s Hierarchy, there’s an increasing amount of free time in search of entertainment and fulfilment.
  • Start anything as a little bet. Get feedback as early as possible. You’re almost always wrong on the specifics, so listen and iterate. But if the market isn’t pulling the idea out of you, you’re not there yet. What does that mean? You’ll only know when you feel it. Not sure you have? Keep laying bets.

Risks in Leverage

  • Don’t stop moving until you bow out. The scale of the internet is our greatest foe. Winner takes all, tech monopolies crush everyone; competition is global at even the most modest levels.
  • All the pain is front loaded. It’s hard to get the validation that you’re creating something good, or learning the right skill, before you’ve got your network. But getting your network tends to happen only after your first achievement.
  • Try not to contribute to society’s impending turmoil
    • In the short term, we no longer have shared truth and reality; the required foundations of governing. Those same technology platforms and niche-creation that enabled our opportunities also created echo chambers that manipulate minds. We’ve broken the world into a million parallel universes. The now-quaint 20th century idea of evil media barons has been replaced by a problem we can’t even see into to fix.
    • The Lessons Of History distils down to a 5000 year cycle of capital amassing in the hands of the few, followed by a popular uprising. We’re in a period of extreme and rising inequality, kept from boiling over by technology bringing sufficient material abundance and distraction. Angry people in the streets aren’t just manipulated, they’re also angry.

Key Lessons

  • Invest in tasks that build your future with the same rigour you invest your money
  • Every decision is “What can I do now such that it makes all future tasks easier?”
  • Timebox bullshit. Defend yourself against distraction. Read Deep Work and Getting Things Done
  • Relationships boil down to “do unto others as they do to you”. Until that happens, be overly generous in sharing with those who inspire you.
  • Take a gamble on the potential step-change opportunities that come your way. Especially if you’re not ready.
  • Work daily at becoming ready. Prioritize building rapidly-deployable assets in the form of media, three skills that make you unique and a deep network.
  • Don’t get sucked into status games, allow yourself to be a little weird. Follow your curiosity into promising new places. Release something.

Haters

  • Why should I listen to you?

    • For 15 years I’ve lived a free life, provided for by a software product I made.
    • This was possible because of the advice of others that I read along the way. I’ve distilled their words down to the bits that worked for me.
    • Take the bits that work for you.
  • Isn’t this just a way to turn into a perfectly soulless capitalist machine?

    It’s an optimized way to get what you want, not what you should want.

    Here’s a hint though: Our universal happiness is revealed in the 5 regrets of the dying. It’s notable that each of them is what was missed. The gaps. So invert them: make more time with friends and family, try interesting things.

    I’ve always enjoyed the lyrical tone of Alan Watts on jobs and money, “It’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like, in order to go on spending things you don’t like, doing things you don’t like and to teach our children to follow in the same track. See what we are doing, is we’re bringing up children and educating them to live the same sort of lives we are living. In order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children, to do the same thing, so it’s all retch and no vomit. It never gets there. And so, therefore, it’s so important to consider this question: What do I desire?