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The Scarcest Resource You Don't Even Know You're Spending

When we talk about investing, we're usually discussing time, energy, or money. But there's a resource scarcer than those—your attention.

Which we're constantly spending, but not getting back.

Psychologists measure attention in bits, as scholar-blogger Sam Spurlin notes:

Studies have shown that you can attend to 5-7 bits of information "at a time." A bit of information is any sensation, thought or other piece of information that enters your consciousness. "At a time" refers to about 1/15 of a second. With this information you can then extrapolate how many bits of information you can handle per minute, per hour, per day, and per year.

The total amount of bits you get in a lifetime? 150 billion.

That store is being spent regardless of what you're doing, he says, whether it's by watching TV, digging through your endless inbox, or having a meaningful conversation with someone you care about. Just like you only get so many jelly beans, you only get so many bits.

The Time You Have (In Jelly Beans) by zeFrank

"Every emotion, thought, sensation, and conversation you’ll ever have is included in that number," Spurlin writes of the 150 billion, "and the way you've allocated those 150 billion bits of attention over the course of your life will make up the entirety of who you were and what you accomplished."

This existential insight refines our productivity obsessions. The real key to a productive working life, he notes, is not to shave seconds off our next task, but to understand the way that 200-bit task fits into the 150 billion bits that we get to spend while we're around. As Getting Things Done founder David Allen would say, high-value productivity is high-context. Tasks blossom into projects, projects into goals.

Aligning the micro to the macro

When you realize that you've only got 150 billion bits to throw around, Spurlin says that productivity "becomes less about tips and tricks and more about making sure you’re allocating the most scarce resource in the universe, your attention, in ways that most closely align with who you are and what impact you want to have on the world."

While finding this alignment is clearly outside the space of a blog post, we do have some leads.

At a micro level, we need to own our attention

To get the time to invest our attention productively, we need to make sure we're creating the right situations to get the right work done.

As Warren Buffett, who has clearly mastered investing, will tell you, a lot of that means saying no to projects that distract from your goals. But an empty calendar will not protect us from distracting ourselves—that will take some mindfulness.

At a macro level, we need to own our goals

Thinking about the 150 billion bits we have to spend here on Earth, a tingle of urgency creeps up Fast Company's collective neck: maybe that's why we've talked to people like Clay Christensen, who can help us find the careers we love. And as So Good They Can't Ignore You author Cal Newport contends, we need to ensure that our career goals aren't someone else's.

Hat tip: 99u

[Image: Flickr user Kent]