The High Price of Paying Attention


I think most people are wildly overconfident in their multitasking ability. I remember reading (sorry, no link) that the brain processes over 11,000 sensory inputs every second. Out of those, only 40 reach the level of conscious thinking. Paying attention has a high price and focus, not time management or GTD, is crucial for productivity.

A lot has been written about the multitasking virus, so I shouldn’t need to repeat what has already been said. But most of what I’ve seen emphasizes the dangers of multitasking on a microscopic level. This is the multitasking of combining email, phone and Twitter at the same time.

I’ve read less about the dangers of macroscopic multitasking. This is when you have too many conflicting goals, ambitions or changes you’re trying to accomplish at the same time. Macroscopic multitasking drains your ability to pay attention, making it much harder to get anything done.

One Step at a Time

Several weeks ago, I wrote why I felt many people were being too ambitious in trying to change habits. Instead of focusing on one change for a month, I frequently see people trying to do 3-5 changes in the first thirty days.

The reason a 30 Day Trial helps you change habits is because it forces you to focus. It requires that you pay a certain amount of attention for at least a month. Rarely do people apply that level of consistent focus, so habit changes are often difficult.

Trying to do 3-5 at once defeats the purpose of the trial. Instead of focusing your limited mental energy on one change, it’s spread over several. As a result, some changes might stick, but usually, most of them don’t.

I like to imagine that there is a hidden price tag with every habit change. Instead of dollars, you pay this price in mental focus. The price tag is hidden, because you’ll never know exactly how much you need to pay. With this hidden price tag, it’s better to overpay than to try to break even. I’d rather have spent too much attention to get a habit started than to spend slightly too little and have to start over again.


The macro-multitasking virus doesn’t just infect habit changes. It happens when you try to take on multiple projects at the same time. When your focus is split between several different projects, you won’t have enough attention to be productive with any of them.

When I set up projects for myself, I always strive to do one at a time. Occasionally there is an overlap between two if I need to delay one project for over two weeks. But even in the worst-case scenarios, I never have more than two projects to think about. Usually it is only one.

Keeping focused on one goal, one project, one motivation makes productivity far easier. Even if you are a scheduling wizard, separating off blocks of time for each project, it will be harder to keep your focus on that schedule. Multiprojecting can be almost as bad as multitasking.

What About Projects I Don’t Set?

When you set your own projects, you have the luxury of setting the deadlines yourself and establishing a schedule. However, for the students and employers, this is a luxury you might not have. Unless I want to spend twenty years in University, doing one class at a time, I need to split my attention between the assignments in several different courses.

When this happens, I try to split up the projects as much as possible. This means if I have a big assignment for one course, I’ll schedule off time to complete it all at once, often before the due date. With the remaining time I’ll complete the other projects, one by one.

By tackling an assortment of projects in a sequence, you can overcome the natural inclination to multiproject.

Isn’t Obsession Unhealthy?

Reaching 100% focus is impossible. However, if you need to be productive, I’d rather lean too far towards obsession than to distraction. Having an unwavering focus isn’t as helpful when you’re trying to improve in non-productive ways. I don’t know many relationships that worked out because one partner was obsessed with the other. Similarly, I don’t think you can explore the world without opening yourself up to diversions.

But when you’re priority is getting work done, don’t squander your attention.

  • John

    My biggest problem with running many projects at once is dealing with the “context switches” — having to unload all of the bits of the first project from my head, and load up the second project so that I can start working on it. This act of switching is very draining, especially when you’re dealing with things that are, conceptually, pretty big & involved. One of my goals these past few years is to reduce the number of switches I do over the course of a day or week, either by having projects that all tie in together somehow, or by doing what you talk about here: pushing back or rescheduling other projects so that you’re not doing more than one or two things at a time.

  • Shanel Yang

    Honestly, single-tasking just gets boring for me at times. When I stumble across the occasional writer’s block, it’s a relief to be able to switch gears to something else. When I think of how the Coen brothers suffered from a tremendous bout of writer’s block themselves while working on Miller’s Crossing and couldn’t break free from it until they took a big detour and finished Barton Fink, I can’t help think it’s not such a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s good to see where that side street leads. ; )

  • Sara

    I like the general idea, but I think it could also work in chunks of time for projects instead of going to completion. For instance, set aside a certain time for one project, then put it away and go to another task for a set amount of time. Foe me, time away with an unfocused mind is the ideal way to come up with fresh, insightful ideas and work.

    As far as habits, I’m very much in agreement. Seeing the effects of a new habit (isolated because you only changed one thing) can be totally motivating!

  • Ben

    One way of looking at 30 day trials is that one year equals twelve separate 30 day trials. I had some related habits that I wanted to change and I did them one at a time. One habit in particular was permanently changed after several attempts – I finally hit on the best way to make myself accountable for this particular habit change (which was to go from a heavy soft drink/soda drinker to a never again drinker of soft drink/soda). I have then reused my accountability measures to reduce my junk food consumption to a small portion once a week.

    The key to my success in habit change/development is to not get discouraged if the first attempt fails – I look at every attempt as a learning opportunity until I hit the perfect formula.

    Cheers, Ben

  • axel g

    Great post Scott!
    I’m a first-time visitor and I’ll be back for more…

    All the best from Thailand

    axel g