Time versus Attention

December 14, 2006 at 5:34 pm | Posted in Attention Management | 1 Comment

If you’re like me, you seek out dissenting opinions on social reviewing sites like IMDB and Amazon to supplement the glowing ones. So, I looked at reviews for the book “The Attention Economy” by Davenport and Beck. I scrolled past the positive reviews you’ll find for most well-written management books to see what else was out there and one commentary was especially interesting. I found it at the bottom of the page:

2 out of 5 stars Disappointingly fluffy January 6, 2003
12 out of 17 found this review helpful

… The initial bad direction comes in the form of a broken definition of attention: the authors claim attention is a narrowing of perception (sensory input), followed by an action decision. The latter part of this is completely bogus from a psychological perspective, and only there to support the marketing/advertising-oriented slant of the book. Yes, attention does involve a focus on a subset of sensory input, but no decision making needs to be attached. Think of watching a movie: it has your full attention; you’re blocking out surrounding stimuli to some extent. But when the movie is effective, you’re along for the ride, not making decisions. Furthermore, the authors *claim* that attention-management is different from time-management, but are very sloppy in distinguishing between attention, time, mind share, effort, persuasion, and a variety of other measures. It’s maddening.

While I am also a strong proponent that adding action to the definition of attention leads down a slippery slope, I’ll leave that for a future posting. What I want to note here is the part I italicized which summarizes a tricky issue when talking about attention: does time equal attention?

The confusion exists because time is often a good proxy for attention. Spending time reading to your child is also giving your child attention. And it would be hard to argue to your boss that you gave a failed project the attention it deserved if you never spent any time on it. But, it’s easy to come up with examples where time doesn’t equal attention. Many boring lectures I slept through in college are proof enough for me.

On the other hand, when you start giving advice about how to bring attention to important messages, shield attention, or manage attention you often find yourself talking about time.  For example, “Set aside time each day to read e-mail”. This doesn’t mean the author has forgotten that time and attention are not equal.  Just that in this case giving time is giving attention.

This comment is important to keep in the back of the mind though since it’s too easy to get sloppy about equating time and attention. I believe that attention needs to be considered as a physiological and psychological phenomenon first with other proxies such as time and action being secondary for the purpose of improving one’s efficiency and decreasing info-stress and attention fatigue.

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1 Comment »

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  1. I agree but I think it goes further than simple time=attention. I think the problem people have is that they assume that People associate ‘being busy’ with being important.


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