“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” (Simon 1971, pp. 40–41).
I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about the wrong thing.
Can I buy a solution to that?
Herbert Simon coined the phrase ‘attention economy’ in reaction to the abundance of distractions of a newly information-rich world, but correctly harnessing attention has always been crucial. Organisms evolved to pay attention to the things that fuelled them, like plants ‘learning’ to face the sun or animals evolving neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine/epinephrine to help regulate attention. Our achievement now seems directly correlated with our ability to focus on the right thing at the right time.
Life is applied attention.
In health, information abundance manifests as the obesogenic environment that distracts us sick. And it’s not just our attention being drawn towards fatty and processed foods; a single healthy menu item can make us significantly more likely to order the double cheeseburger.
I spend most of my time thinking about ways to reprogram our attention system to improve health, and I’ve noticed two major camps. One, often tech focused, believes in sparing our attention. “If we can just create devices and software that will show you the right thing at the right time, we will naturally create better behavior. You won’t even realize you’re getting nudged.”
The other group is the polar opposite. “You should know yourself. Meditate. Learn mindfulness. Spend more time paying attention to what you pay attention to. Yes it’s hard, but you need to do it yourself.”
I find this dichotomy fascinating because both sides provide tremendous value. Willpower is limited, so the nudgers gift us with extra mental resources by restricting their intervention; but willpower is also a muscle, and this approach does little to strengthen it. The DIYers ask you to build new rituals into your life, which takes time and willpower in itself, but their approach lasts after the subtle nudges of an app or wearable device go away.
The nudgers succeed when you keep engaging with them despite their tricks, because the nudges themselves aren’t what you’re there for. The DIYers succeed when you begin self-consciously integrating their practices for their own sake, displacing other things from your life.
The nudgers succeed when they game your attention like derivatives traders in a commodities market*. DIYers stoically build your attention like Warren Buffet-patiently building a Berkshire Hathaway.
Here’s one for fans of the Wire. The nudgers are orchestrating an elaborate sting operation, while the DIYers are painstakingly improving the economic, social and legislative environment so that the criminals targeted by the sting never come into being.
So who do I pay for better attention?
I believe the ideal approach uses nudges in the short term to get people started with their behavior change, and in the (very) long term to design physical/economic/social/legal environments. For those changes to stick until we’ve changed our whole environment (good luck with that!), we need to incorporate mindfulness. It matters enormously because people who learn to direct their attention get better at directing their attention. It’s shockingly cumulative.
And nudges don’t teach you to direct your attention.
Unfortunately, the mindfulness approach faces several obstacles in product design discussions.
- It’s plain harder on the user. Asking the user to do more means you have to give them more back. In general, it implies a smaller market, or at least a more precipitous drop off. All these things are scary if your business depends on sheer usage numbers.
- It makes for less sexy & scalable business plans, because there is a perception that these solutions are harder to turn into products.
- We don’t have the right tools to measure wellness (or willpower growth). It’s much easier to measure engagement.
The solution I want to buy is a hybrid. It uses an array of nudges to get me on the right path and then learn to become more mindful. It’s opinionated. It helps me measure my success. It’s candid when I’m going down the wrong path. It’s encouraging when I succeed. That success, however, is not in following the nudges, but rather in achieving the ability to create my own.
What do you think? Who is approaching the problem in this holistic way?
*A magician is to your attention what a derivatives trader is to a market. So is a designer, by the way.