Cal Newport: Why You Should Write an Attention Charter

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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.

“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.

“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.”

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.”

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.

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.


This week’s post was brought to you by productivity expert Cal Newport. Cal Newport is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to studying the theoretical foundations of our digital age, Newport also writes about the impact of these technologies on the world of work.

We recently sat down with Cal to ask him everything from career advice to his productivity routine. You can check out our interview with him here,

For more information on Cal, his books, or popular blog ‘Study Hacks,’ head over to his website CalNewport.com

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