Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Medium Isn’t The Message, People Are.

We are living in an attention economy. As economist Herbert Simon wrote in 1971: “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.” The problem is, many of us haven’t yet decided what our attention is worth.

Can just anyone lay claim to your valuable attention? In theory, you would probably say NO. At the same time, if I asked if you’re drowning in messages – emails, twitter DMs, Facebook messages, etc, etc – you would probably say YES.Somewhere there is a disconnect. Even as we throw up our hands in disgust and declare that it’s all too much, another week brings along a new tool or service that we feel compelled to try. We’re anxious about not having enough attention, yet we continue to eagerly embrace new ways to squander it.

Can just anyone lay claim to your valuable attention?

So how can we find a way to manage this massive communications influx, given that the attention problem is only going to get worse – not better – as new channels come online?

It can actually be quite simple if we can train ourselves ignore the channels, focusing instead on the people we communicate with.Try dividing the people you communicate with into spheres, like this:

Sphere 1: Core people.

Your essential or core sphere of people are those that you must communicate with. It will always be a very short list. They could be: spouses, children, doctors, or your boss. In other words, they’re life and death people. They will not be clients, no matter how important the client is. Clients come and go, but the core people will not. You should always block time to communicate with them and respond to them – even if it is only to let them know that you are very busy and can only talk briefly or in a short time from now.

Sphere 2: Important people.

The next sphere outside your core is your list of important people. They can be clients, family, close friends, suppliers – anyone you have important dependencies on. After you take care of your core people, you talk to them. Sometime these are the people easiest to overlook, often at their and your own expense.

Sphere 3: People who make life interesting.

Outside the above spheres are contacts that you are independent of, but provide value and meaning to your life. It is good to communicate with them, but not at the expense of core or important people. They could be colleagues who you are working with directly on your current projects, or people in your neighborhood, or teachers in the school that your kids go to. Even the people you buy coffee from every day or the bus driver you see on the way home will fit into this group. You will find people tend to move in and out of this sphere: the teacher who doesn’t teach your child this year will teach them next year, and the colleague you see from time to time may end up joining you on your next project.

Sphere 4: “Nice to have” but not necessary people.

Finally, there is the sphere of people you will communicate with who provide a little value. With social media, there are more and more people who fall into this category. It can be enjoyable spending time exchanging views and information with people in this sphere. They can almost feel like friends. However, if you find you are spending any more time communicating with them than the folks in first three spheres, you need to change things – at least until you feel that you have a grip on the volume of communication you have to deal with.

***

Sit down with a piece of paper and draw concentric circles with these four spheres, with “core people” at the center and “nice to haves” in the outer ring. Then, start populating them with the people in your life. You’ll also want to tag each person with the estimated amount of time you spend communicating with them. If you find you are spending more time with the people in the outer spheres and less with the people in the inner spheres, you’ll know you need to re-prioritize how you communicate.

Finally, draw a small circle in the very center. This is the amount of time you spend with yourself – be it thinking, relaxing, learning, or what have you. If you find you spend little, if any time, time there, you might want to consider re-prioritizing there, too.

How Do You Do It?

How do you prioritize your responses?

Have you experimented with prioritizing around your relationships?

Bernie Michalik

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Bernie is a senior consultant with IBM. He provides leadership to global teams that create complex IT solutions for his clients. In the years of doing this, he has developed innovative ways to be most effective productively as well as creatively. He enjoys sharing that knowledge with a wide range of people, from deep technologists to UX specialists. Though highly mobile, he is based at the IBM Centre for Solution Innovation in Toronto.
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