Founder Diary

January 25, 2022

Attention span is the new life span

Attention span is the new life span

Have a thousand and one things to do? Don’t expect high quality results.

A rivier splitting into multiple streams. A hamster is navigating the river in a boat.
A rivier splitting into multiple streams. A hamster is navigating the river in a boat.
A rivier splitting into multiple streams. A hamster is navigating the river in a boat.
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

X (formerly Twitter) logo

“Anything and everything all of the time.”
— Bo Burnham, “Welcome to the Internet

That’s exactly how most of us treat our attention these days. We do a hundred things every day, so we figure, why not one more? But, before you know it, these hundred things turn into a thousand and one.

Do you actually know how many projects you're involved in? I'm not sure I can even count mine. But, the issue is, I usually don’t even realize how overwhelmed I am until my to-do list overflows with a dozen or more items, some of which have stayed there for weeks. This endless multiplicity of assignments we give ourselves results in splintered and overtaxed attention. I believe this is the single biggest productivity issue we all face (after, maybe, not knowing your goal).

Here’s another sneaky problem. On top of our habitual "visible" to-do surplus, there're many more that remain disguised (i.e., we don’t treat them as tasks) but take tons of time every day nonetheless. I think this happens, mostly, because sometimes the things that hurt us, productivity-wise, are things we enjoy. These usually don't make it to any lists. I mean, who likes to turn anything enjoyable into a chore? But as a result, we consistently fail to account for them in our planning.

Here's an example.

I love reading the news. I can easily spend hours daily — sometimes unconsciously — devouring more and more articles, seemingly, for the sole reason that I like to stay informed and dive deep into topics I care about. However, there's always one more article and there’s always deeper to dive.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that “staying informed,” to such a degree, hurts my actual priorities. It takes time away from them without a benefit to match the "expense." And when I try to read less, it often becomes a game of whack-a-mole, where I eliminate one non-priority reading only to find new, even more exciting stuff I just can't miss!

Attention budgeting

You don’t (in your right mind) plan an expense you don’t know how to finance. And our attention doesn’t really allow credit (or comes to haunt us in nasty ways if we resort to it). That means when we take up a new task, there are only two sources attention and time can come from:

  • Work "harder." Meaning, you have to compress more tasks into the same amount of time. Usually the result is that our attention gets more fractured and the quality of all our work suffers.

  • Work longer. The result here is pretty much the same: stacking more to-dos on top of what normally is enough (or more than enough), means we're left with minuscule attention resources after a full workday to accomplish something else. This also takes time away from rest, giving us less of an opportunity to replenish attention stocks by the next day. One hell of a vicious cycle, isn’t it?

These two sources are exacerbated by our inclination to fill all available time. When one thing is accomplished, we suddenly feel freer, which leads us to believe we're ready to take up a new task instead of leaving more time for other priorities. In the end, there’s never enough time and our attention remains splintered.

My point?

Productivity (defined as progress toward our goals) runs on attention as fuel. Our results are proportional to our ability to focus on the important and shield our attention from everything else. When we allow it to fracture excessively and "leak" all over the place, progress is hard to come by and its cost is higher. You must hate overbudgeting of dollars, then why would you embrace overbudgeting of attention so easily?


The first step to overcome an issue is to diagnose it. To do that, let's talk about why we so frequently say yes to more than we can chew. I think there are a bunch of culprits, some external, others internal.

External causes are primarily a result of factors we only partially control. Among them are:

  • Information Overload. The present overabundance of information has a dual impact. On the one hand, we have access to near real-time data and there are informational and educational resources online that can, no doubt, help us all do a better job. On the other hand, anyone wishing to find a piece of relevant information inevitably gets bombarded with irritating, or outright distracting, nonsense. Worse still, you often know which is which only after you've spent some time consuming and sifting through that information. In the end, if you’re not careful, research and “staying informed” can become a time and attention drain.

  • Guilt. We're conditioned by the dominant work culture to always be readily available to take new responsibilities and to feel ashamed to “shirk duty." I think it works internally, too — we don't feel comfortable eliminating stuff to do, because we're always eager to chastise ourselves for "not doing enough," or for being lazy.

  • Curiosity. Our natural inclination to know and learn more — hence, the constant drive to stay "informed" in my example — is reinforced by the societal pressure to “be in the know.” We're terrified of appearing ignorant to ourselves or others. You have to be "driven" to be successful, right?! One consequence: Do you remember when you last had one single tab open in your browser? I sure don't. This "tab bankruptcy" is a direct consequence of our inability to say no to all the interesting — and not so interesting — stuff that we feel we “just have to know,” when in actuality, we don’t.

  • "But everyone's doing it!" This is the Bandwagon effect. If nearly everyone around us is used to being constantly available, checking their phones every two minutes, we become tuned into this environment and become virtually incapable of focusing and doing deep work. In this situation, it does get extremely hard to break free of conventions and teach oneself to not be okay with caving to peer pressure.

Internal causes are mostly cognitive errors. While this doesn’t necessarily make them easier to tackle, we, thankfully, do have more control over them.

  • Misattribution of Importance. We frequently assign more importance to tasks that don't constitute the core of our work and don't lead to achievement of our goals.

  • The Efficiency Myth. This is the illusion that we can get more done if we just work harder and squeeze even more “efficiency” out of ourselves. It hits me every time when I drown in to-dos, that there's zero chance of ever completing them in one day. If I attempt to do that, my attention spreads thin and I run the risk of failing to accomplish anything at all. Yet, even with this in mind, I routinely find myself in this situation the next morning.

  • Underestimating the Value of Focus. We often disregard the attention cost of task switching (aka multitasking) and miss the benefits of concentrated mental and physical effort (no matter if we’re talking about work or leisure).

  • Underestimation of Time Required. It’s a problem that is particularly hard to tackle because such estimates rely on our ability to predict the future. Research might take longer than you expect, or there may be unavoidable interruptions.

  • Status Quo Bias. You can also think of this as an issue of inertia. It’s our tendency to keep the current state of affairs in place longer than necessary, especially when we understand a change is required but are reluctant to take action. It’s even harder to make adjustments when everything seems to be working as it should be. This point is, first and foremost, about staying true to your goals because inertia often leads us to keep doing something that isn’t aligned with those goals anymore simply because it can be easier to “keep going” instead of course correcting. One interesting aspect of this bias is opportunity unawareness, which is that when we don’t have enough information about alternatives we’re bound to stick to the familiar and repeat the mistake of taking up more than we can digest.

  • Perfectionism. While not a bias, this is possibly the deadliest of all psychological traps. Perfectionism isn’t only about achieving the highest possible standards, it also conceals our fear of failure. When we strive to settle on nothing less than perfection, we’re actually acting on the false belief that if our work is anything short of perfect, it will likely fail. It’s helpful to remember that perfection is both subjective and elusive, and chasing after it kills progress.

  • Sunk-Cost Fallacy. This refers to justifying a past decision when it turns out to be a mistake. The danger here lies in acting based on past experience instead of our actual present state of affairs. Remember, you don’t have to finish everything you start. Sometimes it’s best to learn what you can from what you’re doing and move on.

And my favorite:

  • "I'm involved in lots of truly important projects and I can't just cut any of those loose. And I'm dead sure they're actually critical, it's not some stupid cognitive error!" That seems like the mother of all excuses encompassing many of the above issues.

Now, I don't think there's any universal solution to these, but the attention challenges I outlined above still apply no matter the importance of the items on our agenda. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about doing the dishes or spending five hours on an Excel spreadsheet. We just don't have enough attention for everything at once, period. We only have so many hours in the day. So, whether you like it or not, choices still have to be made.

However, one thing is clear: You can't do it all and expect high-quality results. Isn't that reason enough to ask better questions? So that we can shine at those few things that truly mean the world to us.

Thanks for reading (and for your attention)!

Be the first to know what's new at Brick: