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Write an Attention Charter

February 16th, 2016 · 30 comments

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Ambiguous Distraction

In the war to reclaim your attention, some battles have clearer fronts than others. It has become clear to me that these differences matter.

Social media, for example, is digital nicotine. It’s engineered to hook you so you can be sliced and diced into advertising fodder. It’s not worth losing your cognitive autonomy over — unless your job depends on it, you should probably quit.

But the real issues seem to arise not from the obvious whimsies, but instead from the commitments that are less obviously harmful, and in fact, in the right dose, might actually be vital.

Consider, for example…

  • an invitation to speak at a compelling conference,
  • a request to hop on a call with an interesting person,
  • a long email asking a question you know something about,
  • an offer to collaborate on a project that fits your interests, or
  • a new service that might make parts of your working life better.

To place a blanket ban on such activities would induce a monasticism that would likely stall your career, or, at the very least, make it unbearably monotonous.

(Even my deep work idol, Neal Stephenson — who has no public email address, and only ventures into public for book launches — ended up involved in a sword fighting video game and consults for an augmented reality pioneer.)

And yet, in my own experience, I find that the occasions when I most despair about the tattered state of my schedule are almost always the result of the accumulation of a dozen yeses that each made perfect sense in isolation.

So how do you balance these competing concerns?

The Attention Charter

It’s this question that has driven me recently to consider the potential of what we might call an attention charter.

The idea is simple…

An attention charter is a document that lists the general reasons that you’ll allow for someone or something to lay claim to your time and attention. For each reason, it then describes under what conditions and for what quantities you’ll permit this commitment.

For example…

  • You might decide that for you to consider attending a conference it must have at least three speakers whose topic really interests you, and then, among the conferences that meet this criteria, enforce a hard cap on attending no more than two per year.
  • You might decide that you’ll only allow one call per month with someone you don’t know.
  • You might decide that you can make one major change to the technologies you use (apps, gadgets, websites) per season.
  • You might decide to fix in advance the slots you’re available for work meetings (and, by doing so, solidify all the other times as those when you’ll be working deeply), and then when a request comes in from a colleague or collaborator you don’t want to reject, you can reply: “sure, here’s all the times I’m available this month: pick one.”

My model for this idea is Harvard computer scientist Radhika Nagpal. In my new book, I profile how she became a full professor while avoiding the overwork that most junior faculty assume is necessary to progress.

At the core of her strategy was something like an attention charter that helped her figure out how to stay involved in necessary professional activities without ceding full control of her time and attention.

Among other declarations, she placed a hard limit on the number of papers she would review per year and the number of times she would travel to give talks or attend conferences.

A Hard Limit

The reason I suspect strategies like an attention charter work, is that it acknowledges that certain time fragmenting activities are necessary, but it gives you the hard limits you need to engage in these activities without losing control.

It’s hard to say “no” to a reasonable request without providing yourself a good reason. An attention charter gives you that reason.

I’m still monkeying around with my own attention charter. In other words, you’re hearing about an idea before I’ve even had a chance to try it. But I think there’s something lurking here that’s important for those of us whose battle against distraction is both unavoidably important and unavoidably nuanced.

(Photo by storebukeebruse)

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A semi-related note that I wanted to share. I recently did a podcast interview with Barry Carter. As we were about to record, he told me about how the ideas from my book helped him double his reading speed. Anyway, he recently posted an article about how this happened. A great case study.

30 thoughts on “Write an Attention Charter

  1. George says:

    Thanks Cal.

    Really appreciate your great work.

    Hopefully I can replicate your success in my own field.

  2. Doug Bracey says:

    Interesting idea. I’ll be curious to see how you develop the use of an attention charter.

    Thanks for mentioning the podcast, too. I’ll add it to my commute playlist. I keep finding recent podcast episodes you’ve appeared on, largely by chance. It would be nice if your website had a compilation of your appearances.

    Also, I’ll mention for those interested an excellent article by Dr. Kourosh Dini, author of “Workflow Mastery” and “Creating Flow with Omnifocus”, in which he draws parallels between his writings and yours, Cal. I’m a big fan of his work, too, and so I was fascinated to read his thoughts on Deep Work. The article can be found at: http://www.kouroshdini.com/2016/02/09/on-cal-newports-deep-work/

  3. MB says:

    Cal, thanks for another thought-provoking post. It reminded me of Greg McKeown’s discussion in “Essentialism” about establishing minimum and ideal criteria to opportunities. If the opportunity doesn’t meet all of your minimum criteria, the default answer is no; AND unless it passes a pre-determined number of ideal criteria, the answer is still no.

  4. Adam Garman says:

    Is the attention charter amendable like a daily schedule? This idea is new to me.

  5. Michael Weber says:

    I remember reading in “Getting Things Done” something along the lines of “having a complete inventory of your commitments (including those made to yourself) allows you to say ‘no’ with integrity”. It seems like you can approach the problem from two ends: making the commitment to yourself of how much deep work you are going to accomplish and don’t allow anything in that interferes with that, or by putting a limit on how much interference you will allow in, as in your attention charter example.

  6. Lisa says:

    “It’s hard to say ‘no’ to a reasonable request without providing yourself a good reason. An attention charter gives you that reason.”

    I really like this idea. Because I work full-time at home, I need (and want) to space out weekday social dates, even if they are short, but it’s challenging. Putting in writing for myself a limit per week (e.g., one coffee meeting a week), even if it might seem monastic to anyone else, could help me feel less guilty for saying no or “I am busy for a couple of weeks, how about next month?”

  7. AC says:

    In the Agile/Kanban lingo we call this a “Work in Process” (WIP) limit. WIP limits prevent you from taking on more work than you can handle in a given period of time. Google “Personal Kanban” and you’ll see how WIP limits can be used to help manage a hectic schedule

  8. Stenburgen says:

    I have bee going through your blogs. Recently I have been including them in my conversations with people who really want advice on career, and they all just get wowed by what am speaking. Am glad they are truly making sense in me and the people around me. Keep up with the good work you are Doing

  9. Caroline says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been following your writing for a while and it’s really helping me pinpoint how I can improve my own work and related habits. However, I have one major challenge that I’m not really sure how to tackle. As a graduate student, most – if not all – of my courses are heavily based on group work, meaning 5-6 courses with multiple assignments and group configurations. This makes for very fragmented work, with a schedule bouncing between different course lectures, group meetings, and trying to coordinate work between group members (all with varying levels of commitment) – resulting in constantly feeling torn between things.

    Do you have any thoughts or suggestions on how to best tackle work that is very collaboration-heavy, and dependant on others (and naturally fragmented, as it involves frequently switching between subjects)? Not everyone is great at planning ahead and sticking to a schedule, and getting others to commit isn’t always the easiest. I would really like to implement more deep work-style practices, but I’m struggling with how to integrate it successfully into my current life.

  10. Andrew Chow says:

    Isn’t it all about time management and setting priorities?

  11. Dan says:

    Hi Cal,
    love your books, especially the new one. I just finished listening to you speak on a podcast about the “low level anxiety” we experience in our distracted lifestyles. For myself, I believe this stems from a deep knowledge (which may not even be on a conscious level) of squandered potential – the guilty feeling that gnaws at you when in your heart you know you have wasted time or opportunities to accomplish, but gave in to the shallow instead. I think this may hold true for others as well?
    Dan

  12. With this approach a person looks at both the strategic side and the detailed side of life. They vision what they would like and put things in place to execute. An If-Then approach!! Thanks for the perspective.

  13. Megan says:

    This concept is new to me. Is an Attention Charter adjustable as life adjusts?

  14. Adam Thomas says:

    This is interesting because I have been toying with this idea for a bit, and this blog post came along and crystalized it for me.

    I am noticing how quickly things get to your calendar now, and how powerful hard caps are when used. Those caps force you to decide and maximize these opportunities instead of letting things just “be”.

    Thank you for this post.

  15. Dave Small says:

    Thanks for the excellent post Cal. This adds a practical tool to time/priority management:
    1) Define what we will do (Deep Work).
    2) Define what we won’t do (Time-wasters).
    3) Define parameters of what we will do in limited form to support Deep Work (An Attention Charter).

  16. George S says:

    Hi Cal,
    I teach a high school health class. A portion of the curriculum is devoted to time management. Over the past couple days we reviewed some of the major concepts from Deep Work. Not sure how much of it sunk in with my students. Hopefully, it will have an impact on some of them.

    For me this book has been a blessing. Up until last week I hadn’t realized how much time I spent reading various news articles from the Internet and posts on Facebook. Now I spend a lot less time on these activities…I just have to be careful not to fill that time with similar drivel.

    Keep up the great work! Thanks for writing this book.

  17. Joanna Jast says:

    Interesting concept, Cal.

    I like the methodical approach to it. Derek Sivers uses his ‘It’s “Hell yes! or No.”‘, which is great, but your approach takes it a step further, because, after all – there may be still far too many ‘Hell-yes’es and your approach sets hard limits.

    There is still the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) though. Since we’re talking stuff of interest and value to me and hard limits, so what if I really miss out on a big one this time?
    How do you manage FOMO?

  18. Luiz says:

    Cal,

    Here is a new video by the biographer of Feynman and Newton.

    Guess what both of these great minds had in common. I will give you hint it is two words the first word begins with D and the second with W.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8oEblpIK-s

  19. Chantry Carter says:

    I found this article interesting. It seems to be a very useful tool in helping manage our lives. Between work, school, social life, family, and everything else our attention seems to be spread thin and yet we try to make it more difficult by adding more and more onto our plate. Having this attention charter will help us maintain a balance and gives a necessity for only doing certain things a specific number of times so we aren’t constantly giving your attention to unnecessary activities. I personally have struggled with giving my time and attention to activities that don’t necessarily need it. Consequentially putting the things I need to focus on, on the back burner. This idea of charting out how often to do these activities and how much attention to give them is an idea i will have to try out. Thank you so much.

  20. Tapetum says:

    An attention charter is an interesting concept. I think it may be a lot of use as I try to fight for the time and space to put any deep work time into my life. As a student in a field that requires practice on other people, and thereby adjusting to their schedules, and a mother/wife with a chronically ill son and husband, who need my help on an only semi-predictable basis, I’ve been feeling my time and ability to really focus on my work and learning (which used to be one of my strengths) eroding away until I feel constantly pulled in six directions, and never able to really concentrate. Your books have both been instructive life-savers (in validating that I really am losing something valuable), and very frustrating, because a lot of my time doesn’t feel like my time at all, but everybody else’s. An attention charter feels like it might at least solidify some of the mushy boundaries where my friends can leak over from helpful to adding to the problem at the very least.

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