Attention is a Finite Resource

written by Kat Bair
3 · 21 · 23

They say that all the technologies we’ve come to expect for free are paid for with our attention. That our focus is the valuable and finite resource we exchange for social media, email, and search engines. 

What makes it so valuable? The same thing that makes anything valuable – it is finite. The attention we pay to one thing is inherently borrowed from the attention we could pay to something else. The attention we pay to social media is attention snuck away from some things that didn’t really deserve it (bus station advertisements, the multi-page menu of a restaurant where we always order the same thing) and some things that did (the person sitting across from us at that restaurant, the movie we picked out and are now ignoring). 

It’s easy to think that anything we have little of, we would do better with more of. We want more days in our life, more money, and more things.

But what if our finite attention is a gift? What if it is for the best that there’s only so much of it? 

When I was pursuing my first master’s degree, I remember crying in my advisor’s office from stress, losing sleep the night before my defense, fantasizing about being hospitalized with something serious, but not life-threatening, so that I could just lay down in bed with no expectations for a few days. 

When I got my second, I tinkered on my thesis an hour or two a week for months before it was due, kept adding elements for fun, and was eventually delighted to turn it in, if even a little disappointed I didn’t get to work on it anymore. 

The second degree should have been much more stressful; while I was a full-time student for my first master’s, by the second, I was doing it in the margins of a demanding full-time job, a marriage, and an active social life. 

So why didn’t the second one rob me of sleep and sanity as the first did? Well, maybe it’s because I had a full-time job, a marriage, and a social life.

Our attention is a finite resource; I simply didn’t have the margin of mental energy to spend hours ruminating about my thesis. I wrote things, turned them in, and if they were terrible, they were terrible, and I rewrote them without agonizing about whether my advisor was disappointed in me or if I should change topics. 

Attention is a finite resource. 

So how can we utilize the limitedness of our attention resources to our advantage? When things are hard in your ministry and organization, having only 20% of your attention dedicated to your job is a gift because your family, hobbies, and the rest of your life can balance it out. 

Take some time this week to do a bit of an attention audit. Look at your calendar, screen time, and social time, and consider the thoughts that mull around in your head as you go to sleep – what is your attention on? What fills the valuable real estate of your mind? What takes up more than it should? 

Now think about those things that are important to you – your career, passions, relationships, and hobbies- and sketch out how you would like to allocate your attention. The answer to spending too much time thinking about your job might be found not in trying to care less about your work but caring more about something else. Those of us in ministry are passionate. Finding volunteer work you love or investing in relationships outside of your ministry might be a more effective path to balance than just trying to will ourselves into caring less. 

So invest your attention well this week, and know that it’s no small thing to me that you’ve given us at Ministry Incubators a piece of it. 

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Kat Bair

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