The Attentional Investor

In this story, we learn the difference between paying attention and investing attention. We also learn how content budgets protect us from total entertainment forever.


TLDR: I’ll summarize this story for you.


When everyone in the near future has super genius robot butlers to do all our work for us, what will we do with all our time?

Average daily leisure time has grown steadily since the Industrial Revolution. In the 1800’s, the average work week was 70-80 hours, but that number slowly dropped to 40 hours by 1950. Today, the average is 38.5 hours, but that only measures the people who want to work. The Labor Force Participation Rate in America has steadily dropped every year since the Internet was invented. It’s gone from 67% to 62% in the last 20 years. 📉

The Labor Force Participation Rate may only be 20% by 2050.

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@moviefans: By 2030, the technology in “ex machina”, “Surrogates”, and “I, Robot” will go from science fiction to science fact.

If you want to learn more about the robots joining our economy, watch the demo videos at the beginning of:

Everyone in the future is going to have way more free time. By 2050, humanity will likely achieve “biotechnological immortality” using CRISPR, mRNA vaccines, and other software interfaces to our DNA. Even the Bible agrees—Revelation 9:6 says that people in the future “will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.” That’s the basic science fiction in “Jupiter Ascending”.


Total Entertainment Forever

So what will everyone do with all their free time in the future? Probably more of what they are already doing today. The average American spends 13 hours and 11 minutes every day consuming digital media. Every day.

And that’s before we have super genius robot butlers to do all our work for us. So here are some inevitable questions:

  • Are people in the future just going to watch television all day? Why not? There will be unlimited AI resources to make never ending episodes of every show you’ve ever loved. The episodes will continue to get better and better as the AI watches you watch each episode. 📺

  • Are people in the future just going to play video games all day? Why not? Several e-Sports championships already have more viewers than the Super Bowl each year. The most popular kids streaming their video games on Twitch are millionaires way before the kids in the NBA. 🕹️

  • Are people in the future just going to doom-scroll Instagram and TikTok all day? Why not? In the future, everyone lives like a rock star. We will all have entourages of humanoid drivers, chefs, stylists, and trainers. Even our electric private jets will be flown, managed, and operated by artificial intelligence. So, yeah, we gotta see how e’rybody else is livin’. 🤩

Anyone in the future who doesn’t figure out a personal Content Budget is at serious risk of drifting into Total Entertainment Forever, which is the name of my favorite song by Father John Misty. It’s such a clever description of our impending future. Here is a video to watch him sing it live—tap the CC button to see the lyrics.

Lyrics:

Bedding Taylor Swift
Every night inside the Oculus Rift
After mister and the misses 
finish dinner and the dishes
And now the future's definition is so much higher than it was last year
It's like the images have all become real
Someone's living my life for me out in the mirror

No, can you believe how far we've come
In the New Age?
Freedom to have what you want
In the New Age we'll all be entertained
Rich or poor, the channels are all the same
You're a star now, baby, so dry your tears
You're just like them
Wake on up from the nightmare

No gods to rule us
No drugs to soothe us
No myths to prove stuff
No love to confuse us
Not bad for a race of demented monkeys
From a cave to a city to a permanent party
Come on

When the historians find us we'll be in our homes
Plugged into our hubs
Skin and bones
A frozen smile on every face
As the stories replay
This must have been a wonderful place

Share this story with your teenagers.

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Content Budgets

I learned the Content Budget idea from a quote by Herbert Simon. Herbert Simon won a Nobel Prize in Economics and a Turing award while teaching Psychology and Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. Simon’s academic range was prodigious. 🤩

Simon-says,

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

This might seem confusing at first. How will we have a “poverty of attention” if everyone is going to have unlimited free time all day?

Attention Economics has a “supply and demand” curve just like financial economics. We have a fixed amount of attention that we can spend each day—that’s the Supply. When the robot butlers do all our jobs for us, we might gain twice as much attention to spend each day. The reason we will have a “poverty of attention” is because the Demand on that supply is all the content on the Internet, which is multiplying exponentially. For example, in 2009, YouTube received 15 hours of new content every single minute. By 2013, YouTube received 100 new hours per minute. Today, YouTube receives 500 hours of new content every single minute. It doesn’t matter how much control you get over your attention:

You will never find enough time in a whole year to watch just one minute of new YouTube content.

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The math is just insane and that’s just YouTube. ChatGPT is already adding 4 BILLION words to the Internet every day, and that number grows each day. Our poverty of attention is why half the world’s top 10 most valuable companies buy and sell human attention. If you want to learn more, check out “The War for Human Attention”.

Treasuring Your Own Attention

To thrive in the future, we must all learn to treasure our own attention. Our attention is the most valuable thing in the world to corporations, yet we throw it away on mindless activities every day. Each second of attention we waste can never be recovered again because that “now” is now gone.

The reason we do this is because we fear our own attention. We multitask at work with music and conversation. When not at work, we evade our own attention with video games, movies, television, drugs, food, porn, and alcohol. Sometimes, all at the same time. 🥴

Now you may doubt that you fear your own attention, so let’s try a science experiment:

  1. When you get home from work tonight, turn off all your electronics until bedtime.

  2. To become as Attentionful as possible, hide your phone and TV remote.

  3. Just sit there and rest.

  4. Listen to the silence.

How long can you take that much of your own attention?

8 minutes?

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This is the kind of thinking that few people do because of the thoughts that bubble up to the surface of our minds. Life is so difficult even when its good, so it’s much easier to constantly consume new information like sitcoms and junk news, which cram our feelings even deeper into our subconscious.

If we stay busy enough, we never really meet ourselves.

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We need to treasure our attention because it may be the only commodity in the universe that we can actually control “without a witness”. For example, my bank has to attest to my account balances before I can spend my own money. I could say that I own my house, but really that’s only provable from the Register of Deeds at the County Courthouse. So I don’t own my house from my own self-assertion—I own my house because everyone else on Earth collectively agrees that they don’t own my house. I even need the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to attest that I own my cars because that’s who issues titles for vehicles. But I don’t need a witness to confirm I own my attention, my attention is mine.

My attention is me.

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To protect our precious supply of human attention, we need to hoard it. I am an attention-scrooge. I won’t go to your wedding or your charity gala. If we are talking in person and I think you are wasting my time, I will “Irish goodbye” you in the middle of your sentence. ✌️

I am an attention-scrooge with my phone, which I “dead bricked” back in 2013. Dead bricking means my ringer doesn’t ring and the haptic vibration is disabled because I don’t want my phone telling me when I want to compute. My phone works for me, not the other way around. The only sound my phone is allowed to make comes from my wife’s iPhone. If her number calls me, my phone rings loud enough to hear from outer space. 📢

I am an attention-scrooge with my email. Several years ago I decided that every inbound email that needed something from me was my own failure to delegate properly. The first thing I did was hire better operators than me at work. Then I hired better lawyers and consultants. I moved any work to text or Slack. The only emails I want to see in my inbox today are docusigns from startups or new subscribers for funfreq.com.


Let’s be pen pals.


I am an attention-scrooge with my television. When our kids were young, I canceled our cable and streaming services for years. We had bunny ears like it was 1985. I still don’t watch the news because I can’t solve those problems. I treat television the same way coping alcoholics treat alcohol…I try and wait until after 5pm each day to start mindlessly sipping.

If the TV is on before 5pm, the content has to be educational. Each day, just before I relinquish the day to entertainment, I ask myself this question: “If today was my Last Today, was it a good one?” I have lived each day as if it was my last today since I was 16-years old. That’s when a high-school bully pressed a loaded gun into the back of my head during an argument. I have experimented with various ways of asking myself this question over the years and this is the version I’m currently using. So:

If today was your last today, was it a good one?

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The fear of that question each evening is what drives me to attempt difficult challenges each morning.


@americans: My biggest fear for America is our own success. If I remember my “Hardcore History with Dan Carlin” correctly, the ancient Assyrians had a national motto that went something like, “Empires rise walking on wooden shoes, empires fall walking on silk slippers”. Regardless of how rich or poor you are, 13 hours per day of digital media is silk slippers. Try the movie “Wall-E” from Disney—the writing has been on the CGI wall for years. ✍️


@parents: Teaching our kids to become Attention Rich is one of the reasons that my wife and I were so diligent about denying personal computing devices to our kids when they were young. Creativity is on the other side of boredom.

Produce or consume, there is no try.

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Busy people don’t paint. Busy people don’t code. Busy people don’t play piano. Busy people don’t bake. Devices make kids busy. Our family has at least one kid really into each one of these arts and crafts because we made them so bored all the time. Large parts of their childhood were the technological equivalent of 1950. Boredom requires practice. During the first 100,000 miles of road trips in our family adventure van, our kids only saw one digital screen, one time. At the end of a very long travel day when they were young, we watched “The Goonies” on our first trip to Cannon Beach, Oregon because goonies never say die. 🏴‍☠️


Paying Attention Versus Investing Attention

The only way I can have my best last today is if I spend my seconds of attention intentionally. To control my attention as much as possible, I gave up a lot of career opportunities to buy all my time. I sacrificed more money for more time at every stage of my career because:

How we put our time to work is more important than how we put our money to work.

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So instead of thinking about getting a Return on Investment for your money, start thinking about getting a Return on Attention for your time.

@ChatGPT: what is return on attention?

ChatGPT: Return on Attention (ROA) is a concept in digital marketing that focuses on measuring the value or impact of capturing and retaining the attention of an audience. It emphasizes the idea that attention is a valuable resource and seeks to assess how effectively it is converted into desired outcomes such as engagement, conversions, or brand loyalty.

That is not what I mean. Return on Attention in digital marketing measures their return on my attention. Yuck. I want my own return on my attention. After a lot of experimentation in 200 cities and lifestyles, there are four main Returns on Attention that I want from my last todays:

  1. Make

  2. Learn

  3. Play

  4. Commune

They roughly correlate to the four major eras of our lives: play, learn, work, retire. For example, most children born today are free to play and explore and be curious about the world. Then, around 5 years old, we walk them into a room at school and demand that they learn for six hours every day. That’s before they do their homework. There is no time for work or unorganized play anymore. Then around 20 years old, we escort kids from the school room into the work room and demand they work for 8-10 hours every day. No playing allowed, learn on your own time. Then at 65, people finally retire to hang out with their friends and family.

So over each lifetime, a person born today can expect to play all day (without working), then learn all day (without playing or working), then work all day (without learning or playing), then hang out all day with their friends (without learning or working) until they’re dead. I don’t get it. For some reason, we try to achieve work-life balance by keeping all those things separate. I achieve work-life balance by combining them all as much as possible.

I start each morning with work, which I call Make. Work at its best is making something new in the world, even if that means a new customer, while work at its worst is completing tasks. Make is the most mentally taxing of the four returns on my attention, so getting it done first means that I enjoy playing in the afternoon even more. Whenever I try to play first, I’m usually distracted with what I’m going to make later that day. Like Mark Twain said, “It’s always best to eat a live frog first thing in the morning.” 🐸

My advice on finding your best Make is to work for a company that has a mission statement you believe in. If you don’t know your company’s mission statement, or they don’t practice and preach their mission statement, then you should go find a new employer. For real. When you believe in your company’s purpose for existing and it matches your purpose for existing, work will feel like you are making the world a better place. 🫶

Make is my investment in our future, not just mine. Whatever I make today should create some artistic, scientific, or economic value for everyone, not just me. If you are driving a rideshare, that means getting paid within the next hour. If you have a salaried job (Form W-2), that means getting paid within the next two weeks. If you are an expert consultant (Form 1099), that means getting paid within the next few months. If you are rich getting paid by mailbox money (Form K1), that means getting paid within the next few years. If you are a founder waiting on that 83(b) election to pay off, you are waiting for a decade because:

The faster you get paid, the poorer you are.

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Learn is next in my day. The US Armed Forces spend 20% of their week training and upskilling, so my minimum goal is to learn at least two hours each day. The easiest ways for me to learn are lectures on YouTube or books on Audible. I don’t allow myself to hear music until the afternoon because music is an opportunity cost. I'm a kinetic learner, so I distract myself from the tedium of reading difficult science books by listening to them on Audible. I hike trails or mindlessly chip golf balls while I listen. If I try to read Daniel Kahneman while lying in bed, I will fall asleep in 4 minutes. 😴

I also Learn things each day that can’t be read in books. I invest heavily in experts, coaches, and guides because they are a great Return on Attention. I met with an executive coach every month for 5 years. I’ve hired fishing guides, city guides, and museum guides all around the world. There is more local knowledge not on the Internet, than there is total knowledge on the Internet. I have coaches for Rolfing, Chinese medicine, and physical therapy. I have a brain coach who hooks my brain up to her computers. I have a Bible coach. I learn from lawyers who make companies, lawyers who make patents, lawyers who make trusts, and lawyers who make trademarks. I learn from extremely wealthy older gentlemen who teach me how to deploy capital and invest in my community. Every week I ask a question to my “textable network” of experts in photography, medicine, finance, myofascial manipulation, startups, gardening, cryptocurrency, construction, charitable ministries, real estate, golf, quantum computing, music, data brokering, woodworking, education, software design, venture capital, or economics.

Everyone on Earth is exactly as powerful as their “textable network”.

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As an adult, the most challenging Return on Attention each day is Play. My goal is usually to play one hour of every day, but at 45 years old there’s almost no one my age to play with. I vary my play by seasons which include: golfing from the ladies tees, skiing, hiking, paddle boarding, throwing lacrosse with my kids, Mario Kart, and Smash Brothers. Candidly, I’m terrible at the two video games, but my kids love them. If I want them to participate in my sports, then I have to participate in their sports.

Playing an hour each day will prevent you from feeling “burnt out” at work. If we don’t play a little every day, we get so tired of work that we have to go on vacation to escape our own lives. But after 3 straight days of sitting on the beach, we get so bored that we start checking our work emails. Learning to play correctly is sort of like sipping a beer versus bonging a beer. Vacation is essentially “bonging play”. I have tried retiring a few times in my career to play even more, but it always ends up creating a Purpose Drought in my life. Making and learning every day prevent that feeling.


@retiredpeople: I have tried all the most popular retirements:

  • 🪑 I built furniture in my woodshop 100+ days a year.

  • 🏌️‍♂️ I golfed 100+ days a year, multiple times.

  • 🦆 I duck, dove, or quail hunted 30+ days a year.

  • 🏛️ I spent a year touring European capitals and their museums. All of them.

  • 🌹 I planted my own garden.

  • 🎿 I lived in Epic Ski Pass towns just to see what 60+ days on the mountain feels like.

  • 🎣 I fished 100+ days in a year, inshore and offshore, all over Florida and the Caribbean. I have tall tales of huge fish and moonlight revelry.

So, which of these pastimes is your favorite? Where are your favorites places to do them? Let’s chat in the comments.

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My last Return on Attention each day is Commune. Most of the longevity research indicates the more connected we are with the people around us, the happier and longer we will live. So our family invests time in other families from our kids’ schools, in other families from our kids’ sports, and in other families from our neighborhood. On the road in the summers, we chat up locals in parks, on hiking trails, and at the beach.

The likelihood that your day is awesome will be dramatically increased if you sit around a fire with other people, or you get into water with other people. It doesn’t matter if the water is a swimming pool, lake, river, ocean, creek, or hot tub…if you get into water with other people, your day will be awesome. 🔥🌊

@ChatGPT: what words are used the way Americans use awesome in the top 10 oecd countries?

ChatGPT: In the top 10 OECD countries, each with its own distinct language and cultural nuances, there isn't a specific word that directly corresponds to how Americans use "awesome." However, here are a few words/phrases that are commonly used in those countries to express enthusiasm or approval:

  1. Canada (English): "Amazing" or "Fantastic"

  2. United States: "Awesome" or "Amazing"

  3. Japan: "すごい" (Sugoi) or "すばらしい" (Subarashii)

  4. Germany: "Toll" or "Super"

  5. United Kingdom: "Brilliant" or "Fantastic"

  6. France: "Génial" or "Formidable"

  7. Italy: "Fantastico" or "Incredibile"

  8. Australia: "Bloody Ripper" or "Awesome"

  9. South Korea: "대박" (Daebak) or "멋지다" (Meotjida)

  10. Spain: "Increíble" or "Genial"

I have driven from Port Douglas to Byron Bay in Australia and those people are in the water or by the fire every day. So I guess every day is a bloody ripper for them. By the way, if you spend ten years in an adventure van driving to as many ends of the earth as you can, do you know what you will find at the end of every dirt road that ends in a deserted beach?

Two Australians camping on the beach with huge smiles on their faces. 😁

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It’s true.

The Australians will have good beer, good coffee, and know where to find the cheapest taco within 20 miles. It works on every continent. I asked my Australian friend from Brisbane about this during lunch one day in Antarctica and she wasn’t surprised. She said, “Stuart, how long were your flights to get to Antarctica? That’s how long it takes for us to go anywhere. So once you are that far away from home, why would you stop?”

So I guess what I’m saying with this story is, do more with your friends each day than just hang out. Put in the work to make sure some of your last todays are bloody rippers.

Tea and Medals

My favorite way to Commune each day is called “tea and medals”. I learned this phrase from a Scottish geologist who was in the Royal Air Force. After his team of soldiers finished their work each day, they would “put the kettle on” and commend each other for the effort they gave. Our family had been doing this for years, but we didn’t have a cool name for it.

At the end of each day, before we watch TV, our family goes around the room and each person tells a story about a challenge they overcame that day.

  • We remember these stories.

  • We laugh from these stories.

  • We learn from these stories.

  • We cry from these stories.

  • We fight from these stories.

We cheer authenticity, so epic fails and face plants are genuinely celebrated.

Bragging is also highly encouraged because it ain’t bragging if it’s true. We want to celebrate each other because no one else will. The storytelling matters though, if your story doesn’t have context, risk, and some kind of triumph or lesson at the end…we will boo your story. Storytelling is probably the most important skill that isn’t taught in public school.

Tea and medals usually takes 15-30 minutes, but occasionally it turns into a 2 hour “intervention” for someone from the rest of the team.

The Digital Campfire

The last way our family Communes each day is watching television, but with a few caveats.

The most important caveat is that we usually only allow one screen for seven people. Forcing everyone to share one screen after tea and medals means everyone is still hearing the same stories. Our family members know the same television characters, share the same jokes, and pick up new words together. This creates a “team shorthand” that we just can’t get any other way. For example, our kids know when someone is acting like Annie from “Community”, or Jake from “Brooklyn 99”. Those labels mean, “your perfectionism needs to chill out” or “you need to grow up”, respectively. Our kids let me know when I sound too much like Bill Burr or Jay from “Modern Family”.

If everyone has their own screen at night, then we all live in different worlds.

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The second caveat is that we pause movies and shows so often that it usually surprises our guests. When our children were young, they would annoy me by constantly talking during movies. Little kids think out loud, so we had to deal with a steady stream of questions or really obvious observations that just got blurted out. Some adults never outgrow it. Eventually, though, I realized that our television was the “digital campfire” that we all communed around at the end of each day. The 4k screen just makes the campfire stories that much more spectacular. The problem is, if the television is the only storyteller who gets to talk during the campfire, then that campfire sucks. 😠

The digital campfire (television) is the most influential way our kids learn about our world. Kids can see older people facing almost every kind of challenge in life before they have to face them. The more kids can ask questions about what they see, the more you get to influence why those specific choices are good or bad. Our family watches shows like “Survivor” and “Alone”, to see how other people make decisions under extreme stress. We watch other people create paintings, furniture, and gourmet food on YouTube. We watch “Planet Earth” and lots of travel shows. We watch documentaries and movies together that make us think critically about this world. I watch with my finger on the pause button the entire time, just in case anyone starts to talk.

The more everyone talks, the better the campfire. 🔥

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Your Time Here On Earth

Make. Learn. Play. Commune. If you can’t imagine finding that much time in your busy life, you’re wrong. You have to actually block out space on your calendar to play and learn. Try this experiment: go to any day next week on your calendar and choose any open hour. Make an appointment titled “Nothingness”. When that hour comes, do whatever you want except for your normal life.

It only costs an hour.

Don’t let kids and work be the only things that colonize your calendar. Kids, employees, and bosses will delegate so many of their problems to you that they will take over your entire life. Make sure you get some returns on your own attention. Budgeting and managing our seconds of attention is the most important work we can do—it defines who we are and who we become.

We end this essay with a quote from one of my favorite movies. Movies usually have a good Return on Attention because they are the most expensive stories ever told. The quote is from “Vengeance” by B.J. Novak. His movie is a brilliant commentary on just about every facet of current American society: rich vs poor, country vs city, young vs old, republican vs democrat, fake vs authentic, North vs South. It’s a masterpiece really.


@moviefans: In my opinion, other movie masterpieces include:

Go ahead, judge away. ⚖️

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The quote in “Vengeance”, comes from a music producer who is trying to inspire a listless young girl singing in his studio. He interrupts her and says,

Let’s take a step back. I want to share an idea with you. There is no argument more profound than how the universe came into existence. Are we here because of God or science? I mean it is by its very nature the most fundamental question. But there’s one thing that everyone agrees on. And that is, whether it was God declaring let there be light, or an infinite particle of energy bursting forth in the Big Bang, everyone, and I mean everyone, agrees the universe started with a sound.

He continues,

Why do I even call myself a record producer?  Yeah, I mean, we don’t even make records anymore. What we're recording here isn’t your record, it’s your sound…on the record, that started with the very first moment in time. So when you sing this song, I want you to think about how what you’re making is the record of your time here on this Earth. It’s the sound that you scratch, with your life, on the record of the universe. Okay?

It’s better to see it for yourself. (3 mins)

Don’t let the only sound of your time here on Earth, be the sound of your television.

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