Attention tokens

Not long ago I confronted the realization that I have trouble saying no, and was relying on implicit no as a substitute. I had a particularly manic couple of days earlier this month, and so I was motivated more than usual to do something on this front.

I’ll start with this truncated quote:

If you don’t guard your time, people will steal it from you.

Pedro Sorrentino

Sorrentino’s goal in his post is mostly to shift the idea of “wealth” from money to time and/or freedom to do what you love, but I need something more practical to work on. (I already get that money != wealth anyway.) I just want the time.

I think the verb “steal” here is too strong, though. Really, it’s not that all these other people are so cruelly seizing your time. It’s that you are choosing to spend your time with them. For ostensibly good reasons, very valid, but still, it’s your choice. To reach back to the main idea, you could just say no. It’s your own fault, not theirs, that you assent to spending time with them.

Still, the main idea is correct. If you do not actually value, treasure, jealously guard your own time, then of course you spend it away, and have none left. Then, what you really wanted to do – or, more likely, what was really important for you to do – is no longer possible. (And let’s just set aside the idea of having uninterrupted time for deep thinking. I could write a whole separate post about that.)

“Spending” time is the key realization. Time is really a currency, a finite, scarce resource for everyone, and you can’t be a spendthrift about it and expect to do what you really want to. Saying “no” is really the only way you avoid spending time. Like, ever. For anything.

So, in line with this analogy, I’m experimenting with a way to budget my time expenditures.

Way back in 2007, Merlin Mann discussed rationing out time for meetings to cut down on uselessness. Soon enough, someone took his ideas to their logical conclusion and produced physical meeting tokens. Want to have a meeting? Cough up enough tokens for all of the attendees’ time. Not enough tokens left? Tough sh*t.

The purpose of the tokens was to drive home the concept, evolved since then, of attention scarcity. There are a bunch of articles about this you can go read up on. The concept of the “attention economy” is closely related, so expect to see a lot of crap from advertisers bemoaning how hard their jobs are. The gist of it is that there is an over-abundance of information available already, including the information you’d like to have consumed by, well, whoever it is that you want to get it to. So, the problem now is getting the attention of those consumers, in competition with all the rest of the information getting shoved in their faces.

There’s a strong analogy to work life here: instead of over-abundance of information, it’s over-abundance of work to do. Unlike idly scrolling through Facebook though, real problems crop up when you don’t have enough attention available for your work, and aren’t judicious with how you direct it. You can’t just invent more hours in the day to get more attention, so you have to dole it out thoughtfully. This means saying no to some work items, be they tasks or discussions with others.

Enter attention tokens, my experiment. (Not to be confused with basic attention tokens, but maybe they are fundamentally similar.) When I decide to direct my attention to something that isn’t what I’m normally trying to get done, I dock myself a token. When I run out, my reserve is empty, and I have to reject further demands for my attention.

  • I’m starting with granting myself 10 tokens at the beginning of each week, i.e., two per business day. They don’t carry over, because time waits for no one. If after a few weeks I still feel pressed for time, I’ll reduce the token count.
  • I manage my own tokens. Not only would it be impossible to have everybody else work with them, but like I said, it’s really my own decisions that are the problem.
  • It’s not my job, for the most part, to help someone who I say no to figure out what to do next … because that’s saying yes.
  • A little shell script tracks my token count, and a widget on my desktop says how many are left.

One of the common tactics I’ve read about for saying no is that you should set up your own rules for your decisions. Then, when you say no, you lean on the existing rule. “Sorry, no. As a rule I don’t respond to emails after 5 pm.” This is more to help you yourself work up the nerve to simply say no – people are generally really respectful when you decline a request, especially with a reason. But, it’s not a good long-term mechanism to lean on. It’s like saying that you won’t do something only because holy-book-of-your-choosing forbids it; you yourself also need to believe in your choice for it to be meaningful and respectable. But, to get you going while you learn your faith, it’s useful and valid.

So, my attention tokens are an awkward, external, weird rule that’s my excuse for saying no. Yep, flimsy and arbitrary. But, when I say no, I don’t have to say “I’m all out of my made-up tokens!”. I can say “Sorry, I’ve run out of time to spend away from my primary tasks. Please [email me later / ask me next week / investigate yourself / email the group / ask somebody else] if you need help now.” That’s what the tokens actually mean, anyway, and they might help me learn to say that more … and eventually, without needing them at all.

Coin image source:

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