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How much is your attention worth?

Updated: May 1, 2020

Last year I read Deep Work by Cal Newport (and loved it).

When I recommend the book to friends — which I do often — I summarize Newport’s thesis like this: As a society, we’re increasingly distracted. The media is competing harder than ever to steal and keep our attention. At the same time, the most in-demand, high-paying work depends more and more on someone’s ability to stay focused: coders, writers, thinkers, consultants, problem solvers.

This focused productivity requires what Newport calls deep work, which is a limited daily resource. If I choose to focus on social media, I reserve less mental energy to focus on writing a blog or thinking critically about a client’s problem.

High paid work tends to have a high barrier of entry. These roles usually require extra learning, unusual risk, or a rare set of skills. In the modern freelance economy, the rare skill isn’t (necessarily) writing or the ability to code. Many people can write well and almost anyone can learn to code for free online.

The rare skill is being prolific, applying remarkable energy toward solving a niche problem. That requires having a rare, singular focus that makes you unusually productive within your craft.

In advertising, when someone asks what a person’s attention is worth, they refer to what that individual means to a company’s bottom line. For example: If you deactivate your Facebook today, what will that cost Facebook in monthly ad revenue?

But that’s not money in your pocket. After all, it's your attention that Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and YouTube are selling.

As you learn to be singularly focused — to master the art of deep work — you're able to flip the question. If Facebook makes a few hundred dollars passively selling your attention to advertisers every month, then how much more could you earn by focusing your attention to create something of value?


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