When I was a teenager I might have identified money as my most valuable resource. I don’t think that’s extraordinarily naive, I mean it did always help to bring me the things I wanted: freedom, influence, power, comfort, beer. It’s so versatile you can do just about anything with it. More money meant more ease, more pleasure, more happiness.
As I got older and busier I learned, as many do, that time trumps money by a long shot. One can use time not only to make money, but also to build the capacity for making more money in less time, by improving skills and setting up streams of income. Not only that, but extra time gives you the temporal space to enjoy the privileges and powers you already have. More time means more freedom, more options, and less stress.
Unlike money, everyone is ultimately on a level playing field when it comes to time. We all get the same allowance of twenty-four hours a day. Just as there are ineffective ways of investing your money, there are ineffective ways of investing your time.
If we all have the same amount of this essential resource, why do some people achieve so much, and others so little? Where we start from — in terms of economic class, skills and education — certainly has something to do with it, but there are just as many riches-to-rags stories as there are rags-to-riches stories, so obviously there is another factor at play here.
We could argue that some have more free time, so obviously it’s those without so many commitments and obligations who would have the distinct advantage as far as how much they can accomplish.
Well, I think ‘free time’ is a fallacy. At the end of the day, there is no free time; we use all of it. As I mentioned in a previous post, we all fill the same twenty-four full hours a day, whether you pass your days running six companies simultaneously, or eating Pringles and watching reruns of That 70s Show.
The Myth of Obligation
‘Free’ time is just time in which we don’t feel compelled to do a particular thing. For example, you probably don’t think of your work shift as free time, because you probably feel a compulsion to do certain activities during that time (probably activities your boss wants you to do.) The long stretch between when you normally go to bed and when you normally wake up is likewise cordoned off as ‘unavailable.’
But this is only a mental boundary. The truth is, you always have the choice of what to do with that time. Instead of working from nine to five, you could play mini golf between the cubicles. Instead of going to bed at eleven, you could wander the streets in your pyjamas and bare feet. These aren’t necessarily the smartest or most rewarding choices, but you do always have full liberty as to how you spend your time. The world will not come to an end if you do something unexpected with time that isn’t previously labeled ‘free.’
Obligation is really nothing more than a nagging feeling of some kind. It’s guilt or self-doubt or some other emotion; it isn’t a real, binding force. No matter what we’ve promised others or ourselves, we all choose which commitments we will fulfill, and which we won’t, and life goes on either way. So free time is an illusion. It’s all free, and paradoxically, all taken.
Even those who leave little time uncommitted can still experience a frustrating lack of productivity. Have you ever known someone who is constantly busy, toiling on multiple projects and working multiple jobs, yet they never get rich or become happy or fulfill their dreams? Most of us have felt this kind of perplexity ourselves at one time or another. Busy busy busy all day long, with little to show for it in terms of hard results.
Whenever I feel behind the eight ball on a project, I often resolve to invest two or three straight hours on it. But sometimes, for some reason, by the end of that couple hours I’m not much further along. Yet other times, I can get incredible amounts done in twenty or thirty minutes.
So it seems my time is just worth more in some instances than others. What makes the difference?
Just like money, we value time only because we value the things we can exchange it for. Money would be entirely useless to us if we were unable to exchange it for something. So by itself it has no real value.
Time is no different. We like to have spare, uncommitted time because then we can spend it on something we actually want. We want enjoyable experiences, we want our work to be completed, we want our skills to be improved, we want our lives to be in order. Time is the currency we spend in exchange for these rewards.
But as we’ve learned from countless unproductive workdays and boring meetings, the buying power of time fluctuates much more wildly than that of money. Imagine being confined to an empty concrete cell for one year. How much value would you place on your time then? You’d probably wish you had less time, because in that dismal situation, there are few ways to exchange that time for something you value.
So your most precious resource is not time, not quite anyway. The value of your time fluctuates greatly, depending on how you end up spending it. How much value you get out of it depends on your application of the real precious resource: your attention.
Your attention is just as finite as your time, but it is the crucial ingredient that actually converts your time to something of use. If you decide spend an hour of time working on a project, and your attention is only focused on the work itself for half of that hour, you’ve only generated a half hour of complete work with your hour.
What about that other 30 minutes of attention? Where did it go? Well it was certainly spent on something, probably a number of things. Devices and people grab our attention quite easily: Twitter, RSS feeds, colleagues, family members, texts. People commonly sequester themselves from these attention hogs while they work, by locking their door, turning off their phone, or closing their web browser.
These measures are useful for external distractions, but unfortunately the worst culprit doesn’t need a phone to get a hold of you, and it followed you in before you locked the door.
The Biggest Thief
It’s thoughts that steal the vast majority of our attention. By sending you on aimless tangents and wild goose chases, they pilfer enormous amounts of your potentially priceless attention from your life, bit by bit.
Aimless thinking is incredibly pervasive in humankind. I’m not talking about an inefficient hour here or there; I’m talking about years of your life, gone with nothing to show for it. The 50% rate of wasted attention in the above example is probably very low. Thoughts jump from one to another so rapidly and seamlessly that time just disappears.
Perhaps, in that hour, your attention was captured by thoughts you had about your deadline, which led to thoughts about your boss’ opinion of you, which led to thoughts about your future at your company, which led you to the worry that you will get passed up for the next promotion, which led you to a fantasy about working four hours a week and making a million dollars a year. Then you look up and remember you’re supposed to be writing a report. You begin to feel restless and go make coffee.
Now it’s seventeen minutes later and you’ve done nothing.
That’s just a simple example. A real-life wandering train of thought is usually more complex, potentially visiting dozens of topics in a minute or two, each one leaving its own residue of emotion and doubt. In addition to the considerable drain these attention-stealing thoughts place on your time, they can lead to troublesome, negative thoughts about yourself or your situation. They can leave you in a bad mood, further taxing your capacity to be productive.
Thoughts are particularly dangerous attention thieves because all thoughts claim to be important, not unlike a teenage drama queen. They scream “Hey! Look at me. I need you to deal with me right now!”
Be discriminate. You don’t open up your wallet every time you see a For Sale sign, so be similarly thrifty when it comes to spending your attention. Most thoughts are useless and repetitive and have nothing of value to offer you. So get into the habit of returning your attention to the task at hand, rather than attending to thoughts that arise. If the thought reminds you of something you need to do, write it down and continue with your work.
When something has your attention, recognize that you are making a purchase. You are spending a finite resource, so make sure you’re getting something in return.
Most people do not even think about where their attention is. A thought occurs, and they jump right on it, either mentally, or with their whole body, rushing to do something as soon as they think of it. Don’t make impulsive purchases; know what you’re getting.
You can spend all the time in the world on something, but if your attention doesn’t stay focused on it, that time is never converted into anything useful to you.
Clever readers may have realized that other people have this precious resource too, and if you give them a reason, they can give it to you. If you have captured someone else’s attention, you can employ it to produce something that is valuable to you or others.
The classic example is that of a hired employee. As an employer, you can easily buy someone’s time for a flat rate. But only if you are an effective manager can you direct their attention to activities that produce value for you and your clients. If you are ineffective, you are paying for their time, but their attention may be mostly wasted.
Very successful people are ones who can leverage the attention of thousands of employees and clients to contribute tremendous value to their company, and subsequently give value back in the form of wages for employees and useful products for clients.
But your own attention is the only attention you have direct control over, so focus on that first. I will explore the idea of cultivating the attention of others in a future post. Remember, attention is more valuable than time, and time is more valuable than money. Surely you wouldn’t toss around your money like it didn’t matter, so keep your eye on where your attention is going.
Frequently ask yourself: “Where is my attention right now? Where was it before right now? Where is the best place to put my attention, right now?”
I think you’ll find that very often it’s been captured by something that isn’t doing you any good, like an irrelevant train of thought or some other distraction.
Attention loss is a serious habit that affects us all, but asking those simple questions begins to steer us in a much more effective direction.
Well, it looks like I still have your attention. I’m flattered. If you liked this article, please invest three seconds and Stumble It or click the ShareThis button below and leverage someone else’s attention any way you choose.
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