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.
load comments (42)
  • Tyler

    Although I do appreciate the article perhaps you should do your homework and understand what the statement “The medium is the message” actually means. You dishonor the history and meaning of the quote when you use it in such a fashion.
    “The medium is the message is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.” Wikipedia

    Again no disrespect on a fine article but perhaps the headline needs some tweaking.


    I read Bernie’s comment on the Swiss Miss blog post of Communication Crisis and thought it was the most brilliant answer.

    Thanks for turning it into a Tip article.

  • blm

    Thanks, Kenny!

  • 99U

    Thanks for the feedback. The title idea was really just meant a catchy play on words with McLuhan’s now classic statement – not an attempt to re-interpret that quote or disrespect him!

  • sandy

    Thanks Tyler I complety agree! It’s anti-culture in a marketing way!

  • Elizabeth

    In our digital race to be surrounded by people, we have become overwhelmed by them. Desperate for the circular crowd of which we are the center, users now drown in the content they once sought out to empower.-elizabeth

  • Jamie Lutz Carroll

    Great post! I learned this in a sales seminar years ago about categorizing your prospects, with the inner sphere being friends and family that are most likely to refer you business. Totally makes sense to use it to keep your personal relationships alive and healthy! I teach my clients ( to time-block family and self time in a planner at the beginning of each month and treat it as unbreakable as an important business meeting. Without personal connection, success doesn’t count for much!

  • blm

    Thanks! Good comparison, too. I believe sales people really have to focus on this if they are to be successful. But I also think that people generally can benefit from this approach.

  • Drew C David

    We follow and “like” so many people & things through social media, but forget to invest in relationships. I liked the use of spheres, and how moving to the next level should only take place after investing in the proceeding spheres.

  • blm

    Thanks, Drew. I think having the spheres and periodically checking to make sure we have the right balance can go along way to better managing our relationships. We can still use social media, but we can use it effectively and not get swallowed up in it.

  • Guest

    Thank you — I am sharing this on Facebook and Twitter :)

  • blm

    Thank you!

  • blm

    I hope in some way this article can help address that. Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth.

  • Tyler

    I assumed that is was something like that. Thank you for taking the time to reply and clear it up, much appreciated and cordial of a fine webmaster.

  • Drew C David

    Balance is key! A balanced use of social media can build a business and build/grow relationships.
    I don’t personally feel comfortable combining the words, Manage and Relationships. Do you think there is a better way of expressing that idea?

  • Life, for instance

    This is great! I love that quote- thanks for sharing it.Getting organized is something I’m all about these days. I’ll take this advice and stir it into the pot I’m brewing! thanks!

  • Davina K. Brewer

    So do I Lori, seen that quote used a few times. During a chat yesterday we discussed this, prioritizing our time for reading, calls, projects.. same concepts of the different levels of those that get our precious – b/c it’s limited, valuable – attention. FWIW.

  • blm

    Thank you both! Good luck with restructuring your communications to get the most out of them!

  • Ulisses Sperle Graça


    Thank you very much.
    I am sharing this on Facebook.

  • blm


  • blm

    I think you have! Balancing and prioritizing and improving are all part of managing. For example, if you think: I am going to spend some time to insure I am spending more time with my core people, then you are improving your life by prioritizing how you spend your time and whom you spent your time with. Spending less time with less important people and more time with more important people is striving to maintain the proper balance and equilibrium in your life, and by restoring that balance, you are enhancing your life and strengthening your most important relationships.

  • Estudio Kuno

    Thank you very much I´m posting this on facebook

  • vasarenar

    great article!

  • kidminchris

    Very insightful. Thank you!

  • resume writing

    usually i dont believe in things like this. i don’t believe that some tips can help and i dont think that programs kinda ‘easy steps to…’ may help. but surprisingly not this time. i even dont know how it can be but i agree with almost everything that is given in the article and even more – i already use some of mentiones tips. i am embarrassed now a little) so.. thanks to the author))))

  • blm

    You’re welcome! I am glad you found it useful. Thanks for your comment

  • blm

    Thank you!

  • blm


  • blm

    Glad to hear! Thanks!

  • Custom Term Paper

    Very very interesting…..Nice observation.

  • Newton

    What make you qualified to make statements about people “not having value”. This is the dark side of human nature and our free market economy. Be careful.

  • James Spradlin

    Bernie — thanks for the article. My wife and I never carpool to work, but this morning we did — and we had this exact same conversation about spheres of people. But you took it much further and I think outlined easily what I was trying to say. This is perfect for where we are at.

    Essentially, we have a greater desire to be relational with more people than we have time for. Often, the people who are at the core (each other, family, close friends) and the “important” ones get the left overs as we manage 100 other more peripheral relationships.

    We both believe this is a good problem to have … but it isn’t working. We are finding ourselves spread thin and less effective and at times even less loving overall. We live in a time where we can be connected to more people on a daily basis that it seems we were ever intended to do.

    I believe whole heartedly that we (myself!) can’t forget that this … is … all … about … people. I’ve been fascinated with, growing through, and perplexed by this whole topic for nearly the last two decades and summed up my personal journey through “The Impact of Social Technology” if you want to read further here:

    Again, thank you Bernie. I will instantly repost this for others on Facebook — in hopes that maybe even some good face-to-face conversations will come out of it. :)

  • Justin Threlkeld

    Relationships are one of the most neglected parts of modern life. Great article.

  • blm

    Where is that statement about people “not having value”? I do say: “there is the sphere of people you will communicate with who provide a little value.” It’s a relative notion. I think everyone has value. However, in relationship to me, there are people who provide alot of value and some people who provide little value. It is a spectrum. For example, my close family provide alot of value to me and the person whom I buy coffee from provides me a little value, just like I provide a little value to him by buying the coffee and his family and friends provide him with alot of value.

  • blm

    Thanks, James! I appreciate your comments and your thoughtfulness. And for anyone reading this, I highly recommend people click through and read your paper on “The Impact of Social Technology” that you link to.

  • blm

    Thanks for the complement, Justin!

  • Brianna Lamar

    Unfortunately facebook doesn’t honor this concept…they push everyone to be friends with everyone who’s ever known anyone you’ve ever known and then you can’t effectively stay in touch with your inner circles without streaming through a whole lot of distraction. It’s a bummer, and why I cancelled my personal profile, it’s such a mess…and I feel like i’m missing some good stuff, but it’s information overload…i don’t need to know all these details of all these people i never talk to in real life….or eavesdrop on my friend’s comments on other people’s walls……and when I post something, I have no clue if the people i actually want to see it saw it, because they have hundreds or thousands of “friends” with posts streaming on their page. It would be so much more meaningful, if they weren’t so driven to make so much money off people and therefore dilute the value of their experience.

    So that’s my little facebook rant! I do have an official page, only because people are on there and it’s what they like to use and it works ok. But for sure, Energy flows where Attention goes…and the value of our focus is everything really, it’s what shapes our world…that’s why i don’t watch TV! except for SNL…online :) It’s a New Era! The Internet is amazing…..

  • jkglei

    Glad you agree, Kenny! That’s how I stumbled on Bernie. : )

  • blm

    Brianna, you are correct. I think Facebook is evolving, but it is not easy to control the spheres of contacts like I outlined above. I think this will come over time. Other sites, like are taking a different approach, whereby you are really only “friending” your inner contacts.

    In the meantime, you will have to do what you are doing now, and manage alot of this manually. Eventually I believe it will become easier.

  • Jiri Rybar

    How can you put your boss to Sphere 1 and not you client? They should both be in Sphere 2, but there should be family and the closest friends in Sphere 1.

  • blm

    Good question. Actually, I say two things. 1) “those that you must communicate with.”
    2) “They could be: spouses, children, doctors, or your boss”. Whoever is on the short list of people you MUST communicate with should be in sphere 1. If you are an independent consultant with one key client, then that client should be in sphere 1. Likewise, if you have many clients and they come and go, but you must talk to your boss daily, then your boss should go into sphere 1.

    The main thing is for people you must communicate with. Even with family, there are members you must communicate with and some members you only need to talk to from time to time.

  • Martin

    Bernie, how about this: you have got 3 spheres (circles) of communication: 1st. Strong ties with most intense communication (spouse, wife, kids, best friends.. your “nearest and dearest”) i would say 10-15 people max. 2nd. Weak ties with irregular intensity of communication (with the rest of friends, coworkers, schoolmates, family members..) up to 100-300 people. 3rd are temporary ties with temporary intensity of communication (bus driver, client, barista in a cafe, recepcionist..) most potent group perhaps. Prioritize your communication according to your natural, organic importance, not according to the urgency or some hierarchy needs otherwise you go bananas.

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