Attention‘s opportunity cost

Are you getting value for the attention you pay?

We’ve been paying attention to attention for a couple weeks now, in light of a few questions:

  • what do we pay with?

  • how much of it are we paying?

  • do we have enough left over after paying?

  • what do we get in return?

  • is it a good bargain?

Last week was focused on the first: what do we pay with? I then invited to think about the next two: how much you’re paying and what’s left after that.

Today let’s look at the final couple: how good a bargain are you getting in return for your attention?

And a great way to think about the value of a bargain is in terms of: when you say yes to something by giving it your attention, what are you saying no to?

Or as your economics teacher would have described it: what’s the opportunity cost?

(Opportunity cost is one of my favourite concepts from secondary school economics by the way, because like the best concepts, it’s useful far beyond the field of knowledge it begins in.)

Attention has opportunity cost. Which is not surprising because attention itself is a cost. I explained in the previous letters how it’s something you pay for in several ways: with your brainpower and physical energy, with your time and your life. So of course it’s worth being sure you’re getting the best value on your payment.

Especially because attention compounds.

Yep, just like interest. The more attention you give to a thing, the more attention that thing will take from you. It’s why when you become interested in say, a Toyota Corolla, you suddenly start seeing the darn things everywhere. They were always there, but you weren’t interested until now.

Because that’s how your brain interprets the object of your attention: as something you’re interested in. Something you want more of.

Why’s this important? Well, consider that you engage tons of input per moment. Here, let’s try something. Consider all the input coming right now through your five senses (there’s actually more than five but let’s ignore that for now): everything you can see without turning your head, every sound, every smell, every feeling, from the feeling of the surface you’re sitting or standing on to how your clothes and shoes feel on you. And yes, if you’re eating, every taste in every bite.

And that’s just a fraction of the external input. There’s also internal input which is perhaps even more: every thought that flies through your head, every memory, every worry, every plan, every idea, every opinion.

You’re an information processing machine. And the interesting is, you’re processing of all this in the background, below your consciousness. Because consciously engaging it would mean expending effort, exerting energy. And that is limited, so a lot of your subconscious processing is really filtering. For every bit of information, your brain’s asking: is this important enough to flag?

Picture your subconscious as being a little like an assistant sorting through incoming to decide what the boss needs to see. How does it decide what gets ignored and what gets flagged? How does it know what to prioritise?


You get more of what you show interest in. What you pay attention to gets brought to your attention more often. And so it goes. In its most extreme negative form, you can get to where the brain now almost entirely filters out positive stuff, flagging only the unpleasant. And you can live actually feeling like there’s nothing good or pleasant happening in your life, even if there might be. You see this in depression, for instance, where it’s been found that during episodes, people remember their lives in a more negative light than when they’re less unwell.

But you can also work it to your favour, and train your brain on what to focus on — and what to ignore. That’s what practices like mindfulness and meditation, for instance, are usually aiming to achieve. It’s what’s understood in Christian thinking as “taking your thoughts captive.”

So retraining your attention is about retraining the filters so that what you really want comes through and what you isn’t useful is filtered out. Here’s the thing, though: remember earlier I described attention in terms of internal and external input. Well, the internal filtering is WAY harder to retrain. It’s doable but that often takes therapy or other really skilled help, and even that takes time. Your brain has used those filters for a long time, and mental habits are some of the hardest to change.

But the external? That doesn’t need skill. It just needs some thinking through. You can do it on your own. Starting today. Right now, even.

It can start with as simple as what you choose to allow on your Facebook feed or Twitter timeline, what you watch, what you listen to, what you have conversations with. Just pick one of those areas and think about what you give your attention to there. And ask yourself:

Am I getting value for my attention?

Your quality of life depends on it. 

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