Attention Muscles

By jer979!! | | 17 Jul 2020

tl;dr: if you can’t control your attention, you can’t win the game, no matter what game it is.

I’ve been thinking about the themes of the “Attention Economy” and the “Billion Channel Universe” for over a decade now.

It was all based on a post I read way back on on Fred Wilson’s blog in 2005 about Herbert Simon.

Simon said in 1971:

“What does an abundance of information create?” A scarcity of attention basically, right?

Since then, we’ve seen the arrival of the billion channel universe, fragmenting previously shared experiences, creating “bubbles,” fake news, and Never-ending Niches.

Both for the positive and the negative. We can lament the arrival, we can celebrate it, but what we can’t do is deny it.

Controlling Attention

Simon was, I believe, referring to the scarcity of attention on the part of the producers of information. Everyone competing for the same “eyeballs” and the inevitable race to the bottom and balkanization of news networks into political arms of various institutions.

That’s all fine, but there’s not much I can do to get Buzzfeed to raise its game or for CNN or Fox to stop being so biased. I accept it.

However, there is a TON I can do to exercise where I point my attention at a given time.

Like everyone else, I have 24 hours worth of attention to give every day.

When it comes to meaningful achievement towards our life’s objectives (both big and small), two of the most important variables are the quality and quantity of attention that we give to them.

Attention Quantity

We can pay attention in big blocks, such as setting aside an hour to paint a deck or write a report or do taxes.

Attention at the margins, however, is where I think the most gains are possible. Those are all of the little ways that the billion channel universe steals our attention. Notifications, badges, pop-ups, rings, etc.

I’ve turned almost all of them off.

There are plenty of studies out there about how much time it takes to get back into flow state when you’ve been distracted.

It doesn’t matter because we know it’s more than zero. Most of the time, it’s not worth it.

Life doesn’t end if you miss the latest Snapchat story, but that is attention and time you don’t get back from your primary objectives.

Attention Quality

But quantity will only get us so far.

Attention quality can have a a non-linear impact on a project.

The more powerful your focus of attention, like a concentrated laser, the more knowledge work and insight can be applied to a task.

Some tasks don’t require this…washing dishes, for example, even if they can be a meditation on their own.

But the difference in attention quality on a presentation can be enormous, even with the same amount of time devoted.

That happens when we view attention as a muscle.

Our biceps are muscles. Our brains are muscles.

Attention is a muscle.

Attention Workouts

Over the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate the power of meditation and prayer.

Like diet, exercise, and many other things that are worth it, the return on investment is not immediately obvious. It can be frustrating and slow.

However, they follow a Power Law.


Most days, you don’t get mind-blowing insights.

Most days, your mind is wandering and you are challenged to stay focus on the singular object of your attention, whether it is your breath, a rock, a poem, a prayer, or ironing.

But that’s ok. The whole point is the practice. Just like the point is the workout or the calorie counting or the pressed shirts.

What happens, gradually, very gradually, is that your attention muscles get stronger. It’s difficult to notice these because it’s a 1% better every day kind of thing, but it does happen.

Over time, you start to feel calmer and more in control. Not always and not like a superhero, but subtly.

You become aware of the fact that you just got interrupted by a notification, text, or annoying pop-up ad.

Then, there’s a split second where you recognize that your attention is about to be pulled away from your primary focus.

That’s where your training kicks in. The attention muscles are strong enough to withstand it. You quickly ignore it and resume what you were doing previously, before your previous train of thought as left the proverbial station.


There’s nothing we can do to reduce the demands for our attention. Everybody wants it.

Marketers, politicians, family members, Kim Kardashian, the NFL, and so on. That’s never going to stop.

Accepting that, training the attention muscles, and empowering yourself to resist the siren call of the parasites that distract you from achieving your goals….that is something we can control.


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