A Wealth Of Information Creates A Poverty Of Attention

Mark Sagor


weapons-of-mass-distractionWe are increasingly awash in information. The remote gives us faster access to the information on television and Google gives us instantaneous access to the expanding universe of internet based information. Our phones, email and social media give us continuous and real time updates on our friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues.

We are buyers and sellers in an information economy. The brilliant economist and psychologist Herbert A. Simon was one of the first to precisely describe the relationship between information and attention: “….information consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Attention is the psychological tool we use to tune out irrelevant information so we can focus on what is important to us. As the information available to us expands exponentially, our attention is increasingly strained and challenged.

In an information economy, attention is a precious resource, however we sometimes find ourselves guilty of squandering it. We feel compelled to check our phone/email/social media one more time rather than paying close and undivided attention to the family, friends or coworkers who are trying to talk to us. We have all been guilty of withdrawing our attention from the person we are with so we can focus on an electronic device. Ironically, we instantly recognize it when someone does this to us and we know how hurtful and disrespectful it can feel.

All leaders have exactly the same amount of this precious resource but leaders are widely divergent in how they deploy their attention. Outstanding leaders are not distracted, they are focused. They are disciplined enough to forgo checking their messages while they are talking to you. They know how to listen. They don’t waste their time (or yours) pretending to talk to people while their attention is focused somewhere else. Outstanding leaders know the difference between rudeness and multitasking.

Our attention is a powerful asset in all of our relationships and must be managed carefully. It takes discipline and self-awareness to resist the siren song of our smart phones and all the other informational delivery devices that surround when we are talking to someone. We must learn to deal effectively with the temptation to tune out the person in front of us for a moment while we gather information from an electronic source. These small acts of discourtesy may not seem like such a big deal at the time but they add up. Even worse, they desensitize us and become the building blocks of bad habits which may take on a life of their own.

We have to find ways to manage our attention so that we are not making the important people in our work and home lives feel like they are not important enough to deserve our full attention. We need to apply some conscious discipline to our checking messages or face the risk of having our attention, and our relationships, hijacked by the strength of bad habits.