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A New Year’s Resolution… Attention as a Commodity: Invest in learning and development over time to drive individual and organizational professional development

by Nelson Soken, Ph.D

Attention as a commodity

In the Talent Development programs I facilitate, all too often I see well-meaning, well-intentioned, highly talented participants show up in body, BUT their minds are either totally or intermittently unavailable. A 2015 study conducted by Microsoft suggested that people have a shorter average attention span than a goldfish—9 seconds for the goldfish and 8 seconds for humans. The digital age is awash with data. As of April 2017, there are 3.8 billion Internet users creating massive amounts of data. According to an IBM Cloud study, 90% of the data on the Internet has been created since 2016: from 656 million tweets to 4 million hours of content uploaded to 67,305,600 Instagram posts uploaded each day.(1) Wherever we are (car, home, out nowhere) or whatever we are trying to do (eat, sleep, work), information and communication are always available and accessible.

According to author Matthew Crawford, “Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it.”(2) Davenport and Beck in their 2001 book The Attention Economy define attention as, “Attention is focused mental engagement on a particular item of information. Items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act”.(3) The field of attention economics attempts to solve information management issues by considering human attention as a scarce commodity.

If attention is a scarce commodity or resource, what if we follow the principles of investing over time in ourselves and in the larger organization to reap the benefits of compound interest? Compound interest is defined as, “interest calculated on the initial principal and also on the accumulated interest of previous periods of a deposit or loan.”(4) Applying the same principles of compound interest over from the financial world to learning and development, here are some ways in which investing in learning and development over time can reap huge rewards in this distracted, information overloaded, and attention-starved world we live in. Remember: Compound interest requires you to sacrifice a little today to reap the larger benefits tomorrow.

Principles and New Year’s Resolutions for Learning and Development:

  • Plan the Work, Then Work the Plan: Create a plan and then deliberately focus your attention on the plan by acting on it, no matter what is going on.
  • Everyone Can Benefit from “Compound Interest” Regardless of Who They Are: Investing in professional development benefits everyone, regardless of where they are in the organizational structure.
  • Start Early and Never Stop: Invest in development as early as possible and continue to invest in it over time as your career progresses. Never stop investing.
  • Make the Investment Automatic: Make the investment of time and attention a habit and automatic, regardless of what is going on.
  • Invest in the Good and Tough Times: Invest in the good and bad times. If it is a “bad time,” still invest and block out distractions. The challenge you have today will be there tomorrow. Focus your attention on the task at hand, which is your development.
  • Diversify: Learn about a variety of topics from a variety of people, even outside of your area. The diversity of thought will come in handy in the future, even if it does not seem relevant today. Where you are today may not be where you are tomorrow and the diversity of learning will serve a purpose at some point in unexpected ways.
  • Be Steady and Do Not Fall into “Shiny Object Syndrome”: Focus your attention on your development every chance you get and don’t get distracted. You are wasting an opportunity if you are not completely engaged in learning. People are generally terrible at multi-tasking, even if they believe they are masters at it.
  • A Little Today Can Turn into a Lot Tomorrow: Trust in the process and stay the course. Little investments in learning will reap unforeseen and unexpected benefits in the future that are multiplied. The investments add up faster than you think. As Steve Jobs famously said: “Only after you’re there, can you then connect the dots. You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

What’s the bottom line for the learner? Often the difference between professional success and stagnation isn’t that large. Investing a little focused attention on professional development today and everyday can result in success tomorrow. Take advantage of “compound interest” by preparing for tomorrow today. As Benjamin Franklin said, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” So, as you look forward to 2018, will you commit to investing in your future by focusing your attention in your professional development?

Nelson Soken, Ph.D, is CEO of N.H. Soken Consulting and Chief Innovation Strategist at Barnes & Conti

Browse the Barnes & Conti Resource Library for more articles on leadership development.

(1) “How Much Data is Created on the Internet Each Day?” by Jeff Schultz, Micro Focus Blog, Oct. 10, 2017.

(2) “Introduction, Attention as a Cultural Problem,” from The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction by Matthew B. Crawford, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 31, 2015.

(3) The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business by Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck, Harvard Business School Press, 2001.

(4) “Compound Interest” Investopida (website), article not attributed

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