Just now I find myself surrounded by questions of attention. Maybe it’s because I’m teaching a class via Zoom about being better at hosting Zoom calls (cue the “coffee table book about coffee tables” jokes here) while also reading Tim Hwang’s book, “The Subprime Attention Crisis.” Whatever the cause, it’s got me thinking critically about attention as a depleting natural resource.
Back to the Zoom question. Salespeople and other execs decry the lack of attention and focus they receive on screen-to-screen calls, especially with bigger groups. Microphones are muted, cameras are dark. Even when they aren’t, eyes and minds are elsewhere. “Why,” many ask, “aren’t they paying any attention to me?” We tell ourselves that back when we were all in person it was better (it wasn’t) and that we used to be able to read body language (we couldn’t) and built a deep connection with our customers and colleagues (we didn't.)
Back to Tim Hwang’s book. If we accept the premise that attention in today’s world is finite – a scarce resource – we start to understand how to truly earn and deserve the attention of others, whether it be on Zoom, in a conversation with a friend or spouse, or in assorted in person “real world” interactions.
The key is being Attention Neutral. Like Carbon neutrality, it means we generate at least as much as we take out. In an honest evaluation, most of us would have to admit that where it comes to responsible stewardship of attention, we’re driving away in gas guzzlers and leaving the lights and AC running. We are simply demanding far more attention – Watch my presentation, check out my TikTok, read my email! – than we are putting into the world.
Back to Zoom. Want attention? Then pay more than your share. Do the work up front to really understand those on the other side of the screen. Engage in pre-meeting communication and planning to really align with their needs. Greet people when they show up. Have a second question to ask and really care about the answer.
As for me, repentant sinners make the best preachers. For a couple of decades (OK, longer) I never met a microphone I didn’t like. And yes, it’s probably still the needle in my arm. But I’m going to work to be Attention Neutral going forward: for all I get, I’ll try to put back that much and more. I won’t just listen as much as I talk; I’ll care as much as I want to be cared about.
You read just over 400 words in the last couple of minutes. I owe you.
Original Illustration by Eric Sands.