The Most Valuable Commodity: Attention

During the past week (as I write this), I came across two articles which focused on the subject of “attention.”

In the first, Toward a Medical “Ecology of Attention” (MJ Kissler et al. NEJM 2021; 384: 299-301), the authors assert that “in the clinical environment, the most important –and most limited–resource is attention.” They note that distraction contributes “to lapses in judgement, insensitivity to changing clinical conditions, and medication errors.” The article delves into modifications that can improve attention in clinical settings:

  • Prioritizing communications using triaging and batching
  • Designing physical spaces to improve concentration
  • Optimizing electronic health record to minimize attention spent maintaining the record outside vital patient care activities
  • Development measurement tools

The second article, “The Internet Rewired Our Brains. This Man Predicted It Would,” (title online is “I Talked to the Cassandra of the Internet Age”) assesses how the “the attention economy” and the internet are changing the country.

A few excerpts:

  • Most of this came to him in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist, had a revelation. He was obsessed at the time with what he felt was an information glut — that there was simply more access to news, opinion and forms of entertainment than one could handle. His epiphany was this: One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. To describe its scarcity, he latched onto what was then an obscure term, coined by a psychologist, Herbert A. Simon: “the attention economy“…
  • “Rational discussion of what people stand to gain or lose from policies will be drowned out by the loudest and most ridiculous.”
  • His biggest worry, though, is that we still mostly fail to acknowledge that we live in a roaring attention economy. In other words, we tend to ignore his favorite maxim, from the writer Howard Rheingold: “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”
  • Perhaps, just by acknowledging its presence [the attention economy], we can begin to direct it toward people, ideas and causes that are worthy of our precious resource.”

My take: I frequently relate a quote from Jim Gaffigan. He stated that his wife is great at multi-tasking but that he is trying just to task. I try to focus on what’s in front of me.