Because we live in an information age—a mountain of data assaults us each day. As I write these words, my phone alerts me that new emails and text messages are filling my inbox. This crush of input quickly overwhelms our limited capacity to attend to and process all that is bombarding our senses. It’s too much—we simply can’t pay attention to it all.
What is required is a filter to focus our attention on what’s important and quickly pass over what’s not.
A recent article in the Academy of Management Journal describes both the opportunity and challenge of allocating our attention wisely in an age of information excess: “The growing ubiquity of information provides unprecedented opportunities—for learning, creativity, and innovation, as well as for performance. Understanding how to leverage these possibilities becomes an important challenge for management research and practice. However, the abundance of information also implies increasing competition for the attention of individuals, groups, and organizations; increasing potential for information overload to fuel biases in decision making; increasing costs of collecting, storing, and sharing information; and an increasing risk that all this information becomes a distraction from more relevant information or indeed from the job itself. Thus, a key challenge in the information age is to manage this wealth of available information and channel it to productive ends.” (p.649)
So don’t read this post, unless …
… you have the margin and are in the right environment to give this article your undivided attention. Multitasking is overrated; it dilutes attention and often hurts performance. If the information requesting an audience isn’t worth your undivided attention, than you shouldn’t bother. If you don’t have the margin or inclination to focus your attention at a particular moment in time, don’t.
… you have the energy. Attention to a particular task declines over time because our capacity to focus fatigues. When we are tired, it’s difficult to concentrate and we are less effective. So if you don’t have the energy, take a break and refocus when you are able to give your best effort—a well-timed break adds to efficiency and enhances problem solving.
... it’s the best use of your time and attention. Attention is too precious to waste. Concentrate on the information that best serves you and your business. While this may seem like sound advice and a noble goal, in practice it’s difficult to execute well. We are easily distracted by social media or the latest workplace distraction. Further, we may avoid important data because it challenges our assumptions and is contrary to our biases. Or we may avoid the issues and decisions that are too hard, while sticking with the familiar. So, spend wisely. Focus on what’s most relevant to your success, tackling high-yield activities that add the most value.
Consider taking an inventory of how you invest your attention. At the end of your workday, take a minute to reflect on the information that captured your interest. In your mind, rewind your day, dividing it into discrete segments. Then recall what you focused on during each of these segments. Based on what you learn from these moments of reflection, consider the following questions: “Did I spend my attention well?” Did I focus on information that wasn’t helpful?” and “How could I better steward my attention tomorrow?”
I trust this post was worth your attention.
 The Editors (2015). Information, attention, and decision-making. Academy of Management Journal, 58(3): 629-657.