Tag: Herbert Simon

Don’t Let Your (Technology) Tools Use You

“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.
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.”
Herbert Simon


A shovel is just a shovel. You shovel things with it. You can break up weeds and dirt. (You can also whack someone with it.) I’m not sure I’ve seen a shovel used for much else.

Modern technological tools aren’t really like that.

What is an iPhone, functionally? Sure, it’s got the phone thing down, but it’s also a GPS, a note-taker, an emailer, a text messager, a newspaper, a video-game device, a taxi-calling service, a flashlight, a web browser, a library, a book…you get the point. It does a lot.

This all seems pretty wonderful. To perform those functions 20 years ago, you needed a map and a sense of direction, a notepad, a personal computer, a cell phone, an actual newspaper, a Playstation, a phone and the willingness to talk to a person, an actual flashlight, an actual library, an actual book…you get the point. As Mark Andreessen puts it, the world is being eaten by software. One simple (looking) device and a host of software can perform the functions served by a bunch of big clunky tools of the past.

So far, we’ve been convinced that use of the New Tools is mostly “upside,” that our embrace of them should be wholehearted. Much of this is for good reason. Do you remember how awful using a map was? Yuck.

The problem is that our New Tools are winning the battle of attention. We’ve gotten to the point where the tools use us as much as we use them. This new reality means we need to re-examine our relationship with our New Tools.

Don't Let Your Tools Use You

Down the Rabbit Hole

Here’s a typical situation.

You’re on your computer finishing the client presentation you have to give in two days. Your phone lights up and makes a chimney noise — you’ve got a text message. “Hey, have you seen that new Dracula movie?” asks your friend. It only takes a few messages before the two of you begin to disagree on whether Transylvania is actually a real place. Off to Google!

After a few quick clicks, you get to Wikipedia, which tells you that yes, Transylvania is a region of Romania which the author Bram Stoker used as Count Dracula’s birthplace. Reading the Wikipedia entry costs you about 20 minutes. As you read, you find out that Bram Stoker was actually Irish. Irish! An Irish guy wrote Dracula? How did I not know this? Curiosity stoked, you look up Irish novelists, the history of Gothic literature, the original vampire stories…down and down the rabbit hole you go.

Eventually your thirst for trivia is exhausted, and you close the Wikipedia tab to text your friend how wrong they are in regards to Transylvania. You click the Home button to leave your text conversation, which lets you see the Twitter icon. I wonder how many people retweeted my awesome joke about ventriloquism? You pull it up and start “The Scroll.” Hah! Greg is hilarious. Are you serious, Bill Gates? Damn — I wish I read as much as Shane Parrish. You go and go. Your buddy tweets a link to an interesting-looking article about millennials — “10 Ways Millennials are Ruining the Workplace”. God, they are so self-absorbed. Click.

You decide to check Facebook and see if that girl from the cocktail party on Friday commented on your status. She didn’t, but Wow, Susanne went to Hawaii? You look at 35 pictures Susanne posted in her first three hours in Hawaii. Wait, who’s that guy she’s with? You click his name and go to his Facebook page. On down the rabbit hole you fall…

Now it’s been two hours since you left your presentation to respond to the text message, and you find yourself physically tired from the rapid scanning and clicking, scanning and clicking, scanning and clicking of the past two hours. Sad, you go get a coffee, go for a short walk, and decide: Now, I will focus. No more distraction.

Ten minutes in, your phone buzzes. That girl from the cocktail party commented on your status…

Attention for Sale

We’ve all been there. When we come up for air, it can feel like the aftermath of a mob crowd. What did I just do?

The tools we’re now addicted to have been engineered for a simple purpose: To keep us addicted to them. The service they provide is secondary to the addiction. Yes, Facebook is a networking tool. Yes, Twitter is a communication tool. Yes, Instagram is an excellent food-photography tool. But unless they get us hooked and keep us hooked, their business models are broken.

Don’t believe us?

Take stock of the metrics by which people value or assess these companies. Clicks. Views. Engagement. Return visits. Length of stay. The primary source of value for these products is how much you use them and what they can sell to you while you’re there. Increasing their value is a simple (but not easy) proposition: Either get usage up or figure out more effective ways to sell to you while you’re there.

As Herbert Simon might have predicted, our attention is for sale, and we’re ceding it a little at a time as the tools get better and better at fulfilling their function. There’s a version of natural selection going on, where the only consumer technology products that survive are the enormously addictive ones. The trait which produces maximum fitness is addictiveness itself. If you’re not using a tool constantly, it has no value to advertisers or data sellers, and thus they cannot raise capital to survive. And even if it’s an app or tool that you buy, one that you have to pay money for upfront, they must hook you on Version 1 if you’re going to be expected to buy Versions 2, 3, and 4.

This ecosystem ensures that each generation of consumer tech products – hardware or software – gets better and better at keeping you hooked. These services have learned, through a process of evolution, to drown users in positive feedback and create intense habitual usage. They must – because any other outcome is death. Facebook doesn’t want you to go on once a month to catch up on your correspondence. You must be engaged. The service does not care whether it’s unnecessarily eating into your life.

Snap Back to Reality

It’s up to us to take our lives back then. We must comprehend that the New Tools have a tremendous downside in their loss of focused attention, and that we’re giving it up willingly in a sort of Faustian bargain for entertainment, connectedness, and novelty.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the concept of Flow, where we enter an enjoyable state of rapt attention to our work and produce a high level of creative output. It’s a wonderful feeling, but the New Tools have learned to provide the same sensation without the actual results. We don’t end up with a book, or a presentation, or a speech, or a quilt, or a hand-crafted table. We end up two hours later in the day.


The first step towards a solution must be to understand the reality of this new ecosystem.

It follows Garrett Hardin’s “First Law of Ecology”: You can never merely do one thing. The New Tools are not like the Old Tools, where you pick up the shovel, do your shoveling, and then put the shovel back in the garage. The iPhone is not designed that way. It’s designed to keep you going, as are most of the other New Tools. You probably won’t send one text. You probably won’t watch one video. You probably won’t read one article. You’re not supposed to!

The rational response to this new reality depends a lot on who you are and what you need the tools for. Some people can get rid of 50% or more of their New Tools very easily. You don’t have to toss out your iPhone for a StarTAC, but because software is doing the real work, you can purposefully reduce the capability of the hardware by reducing your exposure to certain software.

As you shed certain tools, expect a homeostatic response from your network. Don’t be mistaken: If you’re a Snapchatter or an Instagrammer or simply an avid texter, getting rid of those services will give rise to consternation. They are, after all, networking tools. Your network will notice. You’ll need a bit of courage to face your friends and tell them, with a straight face, that you won’t be Instagramming anymore because you’re afraid of falling down the rabbit hole. But if you’ve got the courage, you’ll probably find that after a week or two of adjustment your life will go on just fine.

The second and more mild type of response would be to appreciate the chain-smoking nature of these products and to use them more judiciously. Understand that every time you look at your iPhone or connect to the Internet, the rabbit hole is there waiting for you to tumble down. If you can grasp that, you’ll realize that you need to be suspicious of the “quick check.” Either learn to batch Internet and phone time into concentrated blocks or slowly re-learn how to ignore the desire to follow up on every little impulse that comes to mind. (Or preferably, do both.)

A big part of this is turning off any sort of “push” notification, which must be the most effective attention-diverter ever invented by humanity. A push notification is anything that draws your attention to the tool without your conscious input. It’s when your phone buzzes for a text message, or an image comes on the screen when you get an email, or your phone tells you that you’ve got a Facebook comment. Anything that desperately induces you to engage. You need to turn them off. (Yes, including text message notifications – your friends will get used to waiting).

E-mail can be the worst offender; it’s the earliest and still one of the most effective digital rabbit holes. To push back, close your email client when you’re not using it. That way, you’ll have to open it to send or read an email. Then go ahead and change the settings on your phone’s email client so you have to “fetch” emails yourself, rather than having them pushed at you. Turn off anything that tells you an email has arrived.

Once you stop being notified by your tools, you can start to engage with them on your own terms and focus on your real work for a change; focus on the stuff actually producing some value in your life and in the world. When the big stuff is done, you can give yourself a half-hour or an hour to check your Facebook page, check your Instagram page, follow up on Wikipedia, check your emails, and respond to your text messages. This isn’t as good a solution as deleting many of the apps altogether, but it does allow you to engage with these tools on your own terms.

However you choose to address the world of New Tools, you’re way ahead if you simply recognize their power over your attention. Getting lost in hyperlinks and Facebook feeds doesn’t mean you’re weak, it just means the tools you’re using are designed, at their core, to help you get lost. Instead of allowing yourself to go to work for them, resolve to make them work for you.

The History of Cognitive Overload

The Organized Mind

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, a book by Daniel Levitin, has an interesting section on cognitive overload.

Each day we are confronted with hundreds, probably thousands of decisions. Most of which are insignificant or unimportant or both. Do we really need a whole aisle for toothpaste?

In response to all of these decisions most of us adopt a strategy of satisficing, a term coined by Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon to describe something that is perhaps not the best but good enough. For things that don’t matter, this is a good approach. You don’t know which pizza place is the best but you know which ones are good enough.

Satisficing is one of the foundations of productive human behavior; it prevails when we don’t waste time on decisions that don’t matter, or more accurately, when we don’t waste time trying to find improvements that are not going to make a significant difference in our happiness or satisfaction.

All of us, Levitin argues, engage in satisficing every time we clean our homes.

If we got down on the floor with a toothbrush every day to clean the grout, if we scrubbed the windows and walls every single day, the house would be spotless. But few of us go to this much trouble even on a weekly basis (and when we do, we’re likely to be labeled obsessive-compulsive). For most of us, we clean our houses until they are clean enough, reaching a kind of equilibrium between effort and benefit. It is this cost-benefits analysis that is at the heart of satisficing.

The easiest way to be happy is to want what you already have. “Happy people engage in satisficing all the time, even if they don’t know it.”

Satisficing is a tool that allows you not to waste time on things that don’t really matter. Who cares if you pick Colgate or Crest? For other decisions, “the old-fashioned pursuit of excellence remains the right strategy.”

We now spend an unusual amount of time and energy ignoring and filtering. Consider the supermarket.

In 1976, the average supermarket stocked 9,000 unique products; today that number has ballooned to 40,000 of them, yet the average person gets 80%– 85% of their needs in only 150 different supermarket items. That means that we need to ignore 39,850 items in the store.

This comes with a cost.

Neuroscientists have discovered that unproductivity and loss of drive can result from decision overload. Although most of us have no trouble ranking the importance of decisions if asked to do so, our brains don’t automatically do this.

We have a limited number of decisions. There are only so many we can make in a day. Once we've hit that limit it doesn't matter how important they are.

The decision-making network in our brain doesn’t prioritize.

Our world has exploded. Information is abundant. I didn’t think we could process it all but Levitin argues that we can, at a cost.

We can have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired. Neurons are living cells with a metabolism; they need oxygen and glucose to survive and when they’ve been working hard, we experience fatigue. Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.

The processing capacity of the conscious mind has been estimated at 120 bits per second. That bandwidth, or window, is the speed limit for the traffic of information we can pay conscious attention to at any one time. While a great deal occurs below the threshold of our awareness, and this has an impact on how we feel and what our life is going to be like, in order for something to become encoded as part of your experience, you need to have paid conscious attention to it.

What does this mean?

In order to understand one person speaking to us, we need to process 60 bits of information per second. With a processing limit of 120 bits per second, this means you can barely understand two people talking to you at the same time. Under most circumstances, you will not be able to understand three people talking at the same time. …

With such attentional restrictions, it’s clear why many of us feel overwhelmed by managing some of the most basic aspects of life. Part of the reason is that our brains evolved to help us deal with life during the hunter-gatherer phase of human history, a time when we might encounter no more than a thousand people across the entire span of our lifetime. Walking around midtown Manhattan, you’ll pass that number of people in half an hour.

Attention is the most essential mental resource for any organism. It determines which aspects of the environment we deal with, and most of the time, various automatic, subconscious processes make the correct choice about what gets passed through to our conscious awareness. For this to happen, millions of neurons are constantly monitoring the environment to select the most important things for us to focus on. These neurons are collectively the attentional filter. They work largely in the background, outside of our conscious awareness. This is why most of the perceptual detritus of our daily lives doesn’t register, or why, when you’ve been driving on the freeway for several hours at a stretch, you don’t remember much of the scenery that has whizzed by: Your attentional system “protects” you from registering it because it isn’t deemed important. This unconscious filter follows certain principles about what it will let through to your conscious awareness.

The attentional filter is one of evolution’s greatest achievements. In nonhumans, it ensures that they don’t get distracted by irrelevancies. Squirrels are interested in nuts and predators, and not much else. Dogs, whose olfactory sense is one million times more sensitive than ours, use smell to gather information about the world more than they use sound, and their attentional filter has evolved to make that so. If you’ve ever tried to call your dog while he is smelling something interesting, you know that it is very difficult to grab his attention with sound— smell trumps sound in the dog brain. No one has yet worked out all of the hierarchies and trumping factors in the human attentional filter, but we’ve learned a great deal about it. When our protohuman ancestors left the cover of the trees to seek new sources of food, they simultaneously opened up a vast range of new possibilities for nourishment and exposed themselves to a wide range of new predators. Being alert and vigilant to threatening sounds and visual cues is what allowed them to survive; this meant allowing an increasing amount of information through the attentional filter.

Levitin points out an interesting fact on how highly successful people (HSP) differ from the rest of us when it comes to attentional filters.

Successful people— or people who can afford it— employ layers of people whose job it is to narrow the attentional filter. That is, corporate heads, political leaders, spoiled movie stars, and others whose time and attention are especially valuable have a staff of people around them who are effectively extensions of their own brains, replicating and refining the functions of the prefrontal cortex’s attentional filter.

These highly successful persons have many of the daily distractions of life handled for them, allowing them to devote all of their attention to whatever is immediately before them. They seem to live completely in the moment. Their staff handle correspondence, make appointments, interrupt those appointments when a more important one is waiting, and help to plan their days for maximum efficiency (including naps!). Their bills are paid on time, their car is serviced when required, they’re given reminders of projects due, and their assistants send suitable gifts to the HSP’s loved ones on birthdays and anniversaries. Their ultimate prize if it all works? A Zen-like focus.

Levitin argues that if we organize our minds and our lives “following the new neuroscience of attention and memory, we can all deal with the world in ways that provide the sense of freedom that these highly successful people enjoy.”

To do that, however, we need to understand the architecture of our attentional system. “To better organize our mind, we need to know how it has organized itself.”

Change and importance are two crucial principles used by our attentional filter.

The brain’s change detector is at work all the time, whether you know it or not. If a close friend or relative calls on the phone, you might detect that her voice sounds different and ask if she’s congested or sick with the flu. When your brain detects the change, this information is sent to your consciousness, but your brain doesn’t explicitly send a message when there is no change. If your friend calls and her voice sounds normal, you don’t immediately think, “Oh, her voice is the same as always.” Again, this is the attentional filter doing its job, detecting change, not constancy.

Importance can also filter information. But it’s not objective or absolute importance but something personal and relevant to you.

If you’re driving, a billboard for your favorite music group might catch your eye (really, we should say catch your mind) while other billboards go ignored. If you’re in a crowded room, at a party for instance, certain words to which you attach high importance might suddenly catch your attention, even if spoken from across the room. If someone says “fire” or “sex” or your own name, you’ll find that you’re suddenly following a conversation far away from where you’re standing, with no awareness of what those people were talking about before your attention was captured.

The attentional filter lets us live on autopilot most of the time coming out of it only when we need to. In so doing, we “do not register the complexities, nuances, and often the beauty of what is right in front of us.”

A great number of failures of attention occur because we are not using these two principles to our advantage.

Simply put, attention is limited.

A critical point that bears repeating is that attention is a limited-capacity resource— there are definite limits to the number of things we can attend to at once. We see this in everyday activities. If you’re driving, under most circumstances, you can play the radio or carry on a conversation with someone else in the car. But if you’re looking for a particular street to turn onto, you instinctively turn down the radio or ask your friend to hang on for a moment, to stop talking. This is because you’ve reached the limits of your attention in trying to do these three things. The limits show up whenever we try to do too many things at once.

Our brain hides things from us.

The human brain has evolved to hide from us those things we are not paying attention to. In other words, we often have a cognitive blind spot: We don’t know what we’re missing because our brain can completely ignore things that are not its priority at the moment— even if they are right in front of our eyes. Cognitive psychologists have called this blind spot various names, including inattentional blindness.

One of the most famous demonstrations of this is the basketball video (for more see: The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.)

A lot of instances of losing things like car keys, passports, money, receipts, and so on occur because our attentional systems are overloaded and they simply can’t keep track of everything. The average American owns thousands of times more possessions than the average hunter-gatherer. In a real biological sense, we have more things to keep track of than our brains were designed to handle. Even towering intellectuals such as Kant and Wordsworth complained of information excess and sheer mental exhaustion induced by too much sensory input or mental overload.

But we need not fear this cognitive overload, Levitin argues. “More than ever, effective external systems are available for organizing, categorizing, and keeping track of things.”

Information Overload, Then and Now

We've been around a long time. For most of that time we didn't do much of anything other than “procreate and survive.” Then we discovered farming and irrigation and gave up our fairly nomadic lifestyle. Farming allowed us to specialize. I could grow potatoes and you could grow tomatoes and we could trade. This created a dependency on each other and markets for trading. All of this trading, in turn required an accounting system to keep tabs on inventory and trades. This was the birthplace of writing.

With the growth of trade, cities, and writing, people soon discovered architecture, government, and the other refinements of being that collectively add up to what we think of as civilization. The appearance of writing some 5,000 years ago was not met with unbridled enthusiasm; many contemporaries saw it as technology gone too far, a demonic invention that would rot the mind and needed to be stopped. Then, as now, printed words were promiscuous— it was impossible to control where they went or who would receive them, and they could circulate easily without the author’s knowledge or control. Lacking the opportunity to hear information directly from a speaker’s mouth, the antiwriting contingent complained that it would be impossible to verify the accuracy of the writer’s claims, or to ask follow-up questions. Plato was among those who voiced these fears; his King Thamus decried that the dependence on written words would “weaken men’s characters and create forgetfulness in their souls.” Such externalization of facts and stories meant people would no longer need to mentally retain large quantities of information themselves and would come to rely on stories and facts as conveyed, in written form, by others. Thamus, king of Egypt, argued that the written word would infect the Egyptian people with fake knowledge. The Greek poet Callimachus said books are “a great evil.” The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger ( tutor to Nero) complained that his peers were wasting time and money accumulating too many books, admonishing that “the abundance of books is a distraction.” Instead, Seneca recommended focusing on a limited number of good books, to be read thoroughly and repeatedly. Too much information could be harmful to your mental health.

Cue the printing press, which allowed for the rapid copying of books. This further complicated intellectual life.

The printing press was introduced in the mid 1400s, allowing for the more rapid proliferation of writing, replacing laborious (and error-prone) hand copying. Yet again, many complained that intellectual life as we knew it was done for. Erasmus, in 1525, went on a tirade against the “swarms of new books,” which he considered a serious impediment to learning. He blamed printers whose profit motive sought to fill the world with books that were “foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious and subversive.” Leibniz complained about “that horrible mass of books that keeps on growing ” and that would ultimately end in nothing less than a “return to barbarism.” Descartes famously recommended ignoring the accumulated stock of texts and instead relying on one’s own observations. Presaging what many say today, Descartes complained that “even if all knowledge could be found in books, where it is mixed in with so many useless things and confusingly heaped in such large volumes, it would take longer to read those books than we have to live in this life and more effort to select the useful things than to find them oneself.”

A steady flow of complaints about the proliferation of books reverberated into the late 1600s. Intellectuals warned that people would stop talking to each other, burying themselves in books, polluting their minds with useless, fatuous ideas.

There is an argument that this generation is at the same crossroads — our Gutenburg moment.

iPhones and iPads, email, and Twitter are the new revolution.

Each was decried as an addiction, an unnecessary distraction, a sign of weak character, feeding an inability to engage with real people and the real-time exchange of ideas.

The industrial revolution brought along a rapid rise in discovery and advancement. Scientific information increased at a staggering clip.

Today, someone with a PhD in biology can’t even know all that is known about the nervous system of the squid! Google Scholar reports 30,000 research articles on that topic, with the number increasing exponentially. By the time you read this, the number will have increased by at least 3,000. The amount of scientific information we’ve discovered in the last twenty years is more than all the discoveries up to that point, from the beginning of language.

This is taxing all of us as we filter what we need to know from what we don’t. This ties in nicely with Tyler Cowen's argument that the future of work is changing and we will need to add value to computers.

To cope with information overload we create to-do lists and email ourselves reminders. I have lists of lists. Right now there are over 800 unread emails in my inbox. Many of these are reminders to myself to look into something or to do something, links that I need to go back and read, or books I want to add to my wishlist. I see those emails and think, yes I want to do that but not right now. So they sit in my inbox. Occasionally I'll create a to-do list, which starts off with the best intentions and rapidly becomes a brain dump. Eventually I remember the 18 minute plan for managing your day and I re-focus, scheduling time for the most important things. No matter what I do I always feel like I'm on the border between organized and chaos.

A large part of this feeling of being overwhelmed can be traced back to our evolutionarily outdated attentional system. I mentioned earlier the two principles of the attentional filter: change and importance. There is a third principle of attention— not specific to the attentional filter— that is relevant now more than ever. It has to do with the difficulty of attentional switching. We can state the principle this way: Switching attention comes with a high cost.

Our brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time. This enabled our ancestors to hunt animals, to create and fashion tools, to protect their clan from predators and invading neighbors. The attentional filter evolved to help us to stay on task, letting through only information that was important enough to deserve disrupting our train of thought. But a funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century: The plethora of information and the technologies that serve it changed the way we use our brains. Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system. Increasingly, we demand that our attentional system try to focus on several things at once, something that it was not evolved to do. We talk on the phone while we’re driving, listening to the radio, looking for a parking place, planning our mom’s birthday party, trying to avoid the road construction signs, and thinking about what’s for lunch. We can’t truly think about or attend to all these things at once, so our brains flit from one to the other, each time with a neurobiological switching cost. The system does not function well that way. Once on a task, our brains function best if we stick to that task.

When you pay attention to something it means you don't see something else. David Foster Wallace hit upon this in his speech, The Truth With A Whole Lot Of Rhetorical Bullshit Pared Away. He said:

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

And Winifred Gallagher, author of the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, wrote:

That your experience largely depends on the material objects and mental subjects that you choose to pay attention to or ignore is not an imaginative notion, but a physiological fact. When you focus on a stop sign or a sonnet, a waft of perfume or a stock-market tip, your brain registers that “target,” which enables it to affect your behavior. In contrast, the things that you don’t attend to in a sense don’t exist, at least for you.

All day long, you are selectively paying attention to something, and much more often than you may suspect, you can take charge of this process to good effect. Indeed, your ability to focus on this and suppress that is the key to controlling your experience and, ultimately, your well-being.

When you walk into the front door of your house after a long day of work to screaming kids and a ringing phone you're not thinking about where you left your car keys.

Attention is created by networks of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (just behind your forehead) that are sensitive only to dopamine. When dopamine is released, it unlocks them, like a key in your front door, and they start firing tiny electrical impulses that stimulate other neurons in their network. But what causes that initial release of dopamine? Typically, one of two different triggers:

1. Something can grab your attention automatically, usually something that is salient to your survival, with evolutionary origins. This vigilance system incorporating the attentional filter is always at work, even when you’re asleep, monitoring the environment for important events. This can be a loud sound or bright light (the startle reflex), something moving quickly (that might indicate a predator), a beverage when you’re thirsty, or an attractively shaped potential sexual partner.

2. You effectively will yourself to focus only on that which is relevant to a search or scan of the environment. This deliberate filtering has been shown in the laboratory to actually change the sensitivity of neurons in the brain. If you’re trying to find your lost daughter at the state fair, your visual system reconfigures to look only for things of about her height, hair color, and body build, filtering everything else out. Simultaneously, your auditory system retunes itself to hear only frequencies in that band where her voice registers. You could call it the Where’s Waldo? filtering network.

It all comes back to Waldo.

If it has red in it, our red-sensitive neurons are involved in the imagining. They then automatically tune themselves, and inhibit other neurons (the ones for the colors you’re not interested in) to facilitate the search. Where’s Waldo? trains children to set and exercise their visual attentional filters to locate increasingly subtle cues in the environment, much as our ancestors might have trained their children to track animals through the forest, starting with easy-to-see and easy-to -differentiate animals and working up to camouflaging animals that are more difficult to pick out from the surrounding environment. The system also works for auditory filtering— if we are expecting a particular pitch or timbre in a sound, our auditory neurons become selectively tuned to those characteristics.

When we willfully retune sensory neurons in this way, our brains engage in top-down processing, originating in a higher, more advanced part of the brain than sensory processing.

But if we have an effective attention filter, why do we find it so hard to filter out distractions? Cue technology.

For one thing, we’re doing more work than ever before. The promise of a computerized society, we were told, was that it would relegate to machines all of the repetitive drudgery of work, allowing us humans to pursue loftier purposes and to have more leisure time. It didn’t work out this way. Instead of more time, most of us have less. Companies large and small have off-loaded work onto the backs of consumers. Things that used to be done for us, as part of the value-added service of working with a company, we are now expected to do ourselves. With air travel, we’re now expected to complete our own reservations and check-in, jobs that used to be done by airline employees or travel agents. At the grocery store, we’re expected to bag our own groceries and, in some supermarkets, to scan our own purchases. We pump our own gas at filling stations. Telephone operators used to look up numbers for us. Some companies no longer send out bills for their services— we’re expected to log in to their website, access our account, retrieve our bill, and initiate an electronic payment; in effect, do the job of the company for them. Collectively, this is known as shadow work— it represents a kind of parallel, shadow economy in which a lot of the service we expect from companies has been transferred to the customer. Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it. It is responsible for taking away a great deal of the leisure time we thought we would all have in the twenty-first century.

Beyond doing more work, we are dealing with more changes in information technology than our parents did, and more as adults than we did as children. The average American replaces her cell phone every two years, and that often means learning new software, new buttons, new menus. We change our computer operating systems every three years, and that requires learning new icons and procedures, and learning new locations for old menu items.

It's not a coincidence that highly successful people tend to offload these tasks to others, allowing them to focus.

As knowledge becomes more available— and decentralized through the Internet— the notions of accuracy and authoritativeness have become clouded. Conflicting viewpoints are more readily available than ever, and in many cases they are disseminated by people who have no regard for facts or truth. Many of us find we don’t know whom to believe, what is true, what has been modified, and what has been vetted.


My teacher, the Stanford cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky, encapsulates this in “the Volvo story.” A colleague was shopping for a new car and had done a great deal of research. Consumer Reports showed through independent tests that Volvos were among the best built and most reliable cars in their class. Customer satisfaction surveys showed that Volvo owners were far happier with their purchase after several years. The surveys were based on tens of thousands of customers. The sheer number of people polled meant that any anomaly— like a specific vehicle that was either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad— would be drowned out by all the other reports. In other words, a survey such as this has statistical and scientific legitimacy and should be weighted accordingly when one makes a decision. It represents a stable summary of the average experience, and the most likely best guess as to what your own experience will be (if you’ve got nothing else to go on, your best guess is that your experience will be most like the average).

Amos ran into his colleague at a party and asked him how his automobile purchase was going. The colleague had decided against the Volvo in favor of a different, lower-rated car. Amos asked him what made him change his mind after all that research pointed to the Volvo. Was it that he didn’t like the price? The color options? The styling? No, it was none of those reasons, the colleague said. Instead, the colleague said, he found out that his brother-in-law had owned a Volvo and that it was always in the shop.

From a strictly logical point of view, the colleague is being irrational. The brother-in-law’s bad Volvo experience is a single data point swamped by tens of thousands of good experiences— it’s an unusual outlier. But we are social creatures. We are easily swayed by first-person stories and vivid accounts of a single experience. Although this is statistically wrong and we should learn to overcome the bias, most of us don’t. Advertisers know this, and this is why we see so many first-person testimonial advertisements on TV. “I lost twenty pounds in two weeks by eating this new yogurt— and it was delicious, too!” Or “I had a headache that wouldn’t go away. I was barking at the dog and snapping at my loved ones. Then I took this new medication and I was back to my normal self.” Our brains focus on vivid, social accounts more than dry, boring, statistical accounts.

So not only does knowledge become easier to access than ever before (frictionless) but as it becomes more available our brains need to cope with it, which they do by magnifying our pre-existing cognitive biases.


In Roger Shepard’s version of the famous “Ponzo illusion,” the monster at the top seems larger than the one at the bottom, but a ruler will show that they’re the same size. In the Ebbinghaus illusion below it, the white circle on the left seems larger than the white circle on the right, but they’re the same size. We say that our eyes are playing tricks on us, but in fact, our eyes aren’t playing tricks on us, our brain is. The visual system uses heuristics or shortcuts to piece together an understanding of the world, and it sometimes gets things wrong.

We are prone to cognitive illusions when we make decisions. The same type of shortcuts are at play.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is a wholly fascinating look at our minds.

The Impoverishment of Attention

“While the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.”


Focus matters enormously for success in life and yet we seem to give it little attention.

Daniel Goleman‘s book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, explores the power of attention. “Attention works much like a muscle,” he writes, “use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.”

To get the results we want in life, Goleman argues we need three kinds of focus: inner, other, and outer.

Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions. Other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate in the larger world. A (person) tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.

How we deploy attention shapes what we see. Or as Yoda says, “Your focus is your reality.”

Goleman argues that, despite the advantages of everything being only a click away, our attention span is suffering.

An eighth-grade teacher tells me that for many years she has had successive classes of students read the same book, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Her students have loved it— until five years or so ago. “I started to see kids not so excited— even high-achieving groups could not get engaged with it,” she told me. “They say the reading is too hard; the sentences are too complicated; it takes a long time to read a page.”

She wonders if perhaps her students’ ability to read has been somehow compromised by the short, choppy messages they get in texts. One student confessed he’d spent two thousand hours in the last year playing video games. She adds, “It’s hard to teach comma rules when you are competing with World of WarCraft.”

Here is a telling story. I was in a coffee shop just the other day and I noticed that when two people were having a conversation they couldn't go more than a few minutes without picking up their phone. Our inability to resist checking email, Facebook, and Twitter rather than focus on the here and now leads to a real life out-of-office. Sociologist Erving Goffman, calls this “away,” which tells other people “I'm not interested” in you right now.

We continually fight distractions. From televisions on during supper, text messages, emails, phone calls … you get the picture. This is one reason I've changed my media consumption habits.

It feels like we're going through life in a state of “continuous partial attention.” We're there but not really there. Unaware of where we place our attention. Unconscious about how we live.

I once worked with the CEO of a private organization. We often discussed board meetings, agendas, and other areas of time allocation. I sensed a disconnect between where he wanted to spend his time and what he actually spent time on.

To verify, I went back over the last year of board meetings and categorized each scheduled agenda item. I found a substantial mismatch; he was spending a great deal of time on issues he thought were not important. In fact, the ‘scheduled time' was almost the complete inverse of what he wanted to focus on.

Goleman also points to some of the implications of our modern world.

The onslaught of incoming data leads to sloppy shortcuts, like triaging email by heading, skipping much of voice mails, skimming messages and memos. It’s not just that we’ve developed habits of attention that make us less effective, but that the weight of messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what they really mean.

In 1977, foreseeing what was going to happen, the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon wrote:

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.

William James, a pioneer of modern psychology, defined attention as “the sudden taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”

We naturally focus when we're lost. Imagine for a second the last time you were driving in your car without your GPS and you got lost. Think back to the first thing you did in response. I bet you turned off the radio so you could increase your focus.

Goleman, paraphrasing research, argues there are two main varieties of distractions: sensory and emotional.

The sensory distractors are easy: as you read these words you’re tuning out (our sponsor and all of the text on the right). Or notice for a moment the feeling of your tongue against your upper palate—just one of an endless wave of incoming stimuli your brain weeds out from the continuous wash of background sounds, shapes and colors, tastes, smells, sensations, and on and on.

More daunting is the second variety of lures: emotionally loaded signals. While you might find it easy to concentrate on answering your email in the hubbub of your local coffee shop, if you should overhear someone mention your name (potent emotional bait, that) it’s almost impossible to tune out the voice that carries it— your attention reflexively alerts to hear what’s being said about you. Forget that email. The dividing line between fruitless rumination and productive reflection lies in whether or not we come up with some tentative solution or insight and then can let those distressing thoughts go—or if, on the other hand, we just keep obsessing over the same loop of worry.

The more our focus gets disrupted, the worse we do.

To focus we must tune out emotional distractions. But not at all costs. The power to disengage focus is also important.

That means those who focus best are relatively immune to emotional turbulence, more able to stay unflappable in a crisis and to keep on an even keel despite life’s emotional waves.

Failure to drop one focus and move on to others can, for example, leave the mind lost in repeating loops of chronic anxiety. At clinical extremes it means being lost in helplessness, hopelessness, and self-pity in depression; or panic and catastrophizing in anxiety disorders; or countless repetitions of ritualistic thoughts or acts (touch the door fifty times before leaving) in obsessive-compulsive disorder. The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.

We've all seen what a strong selective focus looks like. It's the couple in the coffee shop mentioned above, eyes locked, who fail to realize they are not alone.

It should come as no surprise that we learn best with focused attention.

As we focus on what we are learning, the brain maps that information on what we already know, making new neural connections. If you and a small toddler share attention toward something as you name it, the toddler learns that name; if her focus wanders as you say it, she won’t.

When our mind wanders off, our brain activates a host of brain circuits that chatter about things that have nothing to do with what we’re trying to learn. Lacking focus, we store no crisp memory of what we’re learning.

Goleman goes on to discuss how we connect what we read to our mental models, which is the heart of learning.

As we read a book, a blog, or any narrative, our mind constructs a mental model that lets us make sense of what we are reading and connects it to the universe of such models we already hold that bear on the same topic.

If we can't focus we'll have more holes in our understanding. (To find holes in your understanding, try the Feynman Technique, which was actually an invention of George Eliot's but I'll save that for another day.)

When we read a book, our brain constructs a network of pathways that embodies that set of ideas and experiences. Contrast that deep comprehension with the interruptions and distractions that typify the ever-seductive Internet.

The continuous onslaught of texts, meetings, videos, music, email, Twitter, Facebook, and more is the enemy of understanding. The key, argues Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, is “deep reading.” And the internet is making this nearly impossible.

There is, however, perhaps no skill better than deep and focused thought. “The more information that’s out there,” says Tyler Cowen, author of Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, “the greater the returns to just being willing to sit down and apply yourself. Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it.” Deep thought must be learned. In order to do that, however, we must tune out most of the distractions and focus.

Goleman reminds us that some of this too was foreseen.

Way back in the 1950s the philosopher Martin Heidegger warned against a looming “tide of technological revolution” that might “so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be … the only way of thinking.” That would come at the loss of “meditative thinking,” a mode of reflection he saw as the essence of our humanity.

I hear Heidegger’s warning in terms of the erosion of an ability at the core of reflection, the capacity to sustain attention to an ongoing narrative. Deep thinking demands sustaining a focused mind. The more distracted we are, the more shallow our reflections; likewise, the shorter our reflections, the more trivial they are likely to be. Heidegger, were he alive today, would be horrified if asked to tweet.

The rest of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence goes on to narrow in on “the elusive and under-appreciated mental faculty in the mind's operations” known as attention and its role in living “a fulfilling life.”

Media Consumption

“Few things are as important to your quality of life
as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time.”
— W. Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

“[W]e're surrounded by so much information that is of immediate interest to us
that we feel overwhelmed by the never-ending pressure of trying to keep up with it all.”
Nicolas Carr


Take a look at the media you're consuming. There is so much noise.

And no matter how many times I click, open a new tab, or check my email the pile of “interesting” information doesn't seem to shrink.

I'm working harder and harder but not moving ahead. People can create clickbait faster than I can consume it.

I've been giving my media consumption some thinking. Maybe I've been trying to do too much. How many open tabs can one person honestly read, connect, consolidate, and retain anyway? And how many of those tabs are noise?

We tend to just add things and never take things away. There are always more people to follow on Twitter. More people to ‘friend' on Facebook. More periodicals to read. More blogs to subscribe to. More news to watch. More … more … more …

But what are we so worried about?

Are we really going to miss a major news event? No. Unless we pack up and move to the mountains major news will find us. So is it that we're worried about not finding out in real-time? Who cares if you find out in the first minute that Nelson Mandela has died. What matters is that he's gone. Whether it takes you 30 seconds to find out or a day, the loss is the same.

But we need to know. And, more than ever, we need to know in real time. It's like we're in a race with our friends to see who of us can find out news first and share it in our circle first.

Well, that's a race I don't want to win.

It's not just news. It's the rebirth of Yellow Journalism, where everyone wants to stir emotion more than inform. Everyone wants your eyes and, more importantly, your clicks. Traffic matters. And every day the competition for our attention starts all over again. It's toxic to us.

But is any of that making us smarter, furthering our relationships, or giving us real pleasure? I don't think so.

The more we consume, that is the more noise we let in, the harder it becomes to find signal. And if we are what we consume, I want to make sure my brain is not getting the (mental) equivalent of too much sugar.

So my plan for 2014 is to clean my mind a bit by consuming less internet and more books. In addition to that, I want to reflect more about what I don't want to consume. More is not better.


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.
— Herbert Simon

“To be completely cured of newspapers,
spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.”
— Nassim Taleb in Bed of Procrustes



I stopped reading newspapers. News is toxic to the mind.

Why? The ratio of signal to noise in papers is too low. We end up misinterpreting noise for signal.

We're all worried about missing out but if something important is going on, trust me it will find its way to you.


I subscribe to The Economist and The New York Review of Books.

A friend of mine, who reads as much if not more than I do, has a simple rule for periodicals: Either it gets read by the end of the following day or it get chucked. This keeps them from building up.

The added bonus is that if you find yourself throwing away the same thing too often, you know exactly what to unsubscribe to.

Social Media

On Twitter, for example, I follow only the number of people I can really get through in 10 minutes of looking at everyone's tweets.

So my rule is that if I want to add someone that means I have to remove someone. It isn't so much that 100 or so is a hard limit but rather that this rule acts as a trigger to make me consider adding someone.

Within that 100, I try to also ensure that I have a lot of different politics and ideologies. Occasionally I'll rotate people in and out to shake up my thinking.

I don't have a Facebook account, only a fanpage. Given the management overhead associated with that page and the low traffic flow through as a result of the business model changes at Facebook, I'm considering getting rid of that.

It seems old school but if I want to know what my friends are up to, I'll ask them.

In short, follow only those who consistently deliver value to you. Be ruthless.


Just cut the cord. Put the time you were spending watching TV into reading and building your relationships.


If your inbox is like mine it's probably full of junk. I've been doing something about that recently.

All those emails that companies send you that you never asked for. I'm unsubscribing or marking them as spam. That only makes a small, yet meaningful dent.

And most importantly, I'm cutting back on the number of emails I send. Why? Because the more emails I send the more emails I get. Another tip I follow is to only check it certain times of day.


I know phones are not really media but I can't help myself.

Much to my mother's dismay, my home phone is set up to almost always go right to voicemail. She can call my cell if it's an emergency but she never does. (Love you mom.)

I have a cell phone. But I use it differently than most people.

First, only a few people have my cell number. I don't spend my day texting, sexting, or snapchatting.

Second, I use my cell primarily as a productivity enhancement: to send emails or read.

What about the apps?
When the app for linkedin started going crazy with alerts, I deleted it. Too much noise.


This goes for me too.

Commenting on this post a friend of mine said “Aren't you worried about people unsubscribing from Farnam Street?”

I'm not.

Your attention is valuable. I know this and I work hard to earn it.

If I'm not adding value to your life on a consistent basis, you should unsubscribe. Although the paradox is that if you unsubscribe you've just proven that I am adding value.

The Principle of Incomplete Knowledge

The Principle of Incomplete Knowledge

“All models are wrong, but some are useful”
— George Box


If you think of the complicated world we live in you quickly realize that we need to sort the inessential from the essential and then reduce complexity into something simpler. In the same way the map is not the terrority, knowledge is only but a subset of what it represents.

In why knowledge is incomplete, the authors elaborate on these ideas:

This principle can be deduced from a lot of other, more specific principles: Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, implying that the information a control system can get is necessarily incomplete; the relativistic principle of the finiteness of the speed of light, implying that the moment information arrives, it is already obsolete to some extent; the principle of bounded rationality, stating that a decision-maker in a real-world situation will never have all information necessary for making an optimal decision; the principle of the partiality of self-reference, a generalization of Gšdel's incompleteness theorem, implying that a system cannot represent itself completely, and hence cannot have complete knowledge of how its own actions may feed back into the perturbations. As a more general argument, one might note that models must be simpler than the phenomena they are supposed to model. Otherwise, variation and selection processes would take as much time in the model as in the real world, and no anticipation would be possible, precluding any control. Finally, models are constructed by blind variation processes, and, hence, cannot be expected to reach any form of complete representation of an infinitely complex environment.

Daniel Kahneman and Herbert Simon on Intuition

Why do experts seem to have better intuition than the rest of us when operating within their Circle of Competence.

Are they doing something the rest of us are not?

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman writes:

The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.

Intuition is recognition of something we've seen before. We recognize a situation and we intuitively know how to respond because our brain sees the pattern. Perhaps this is a result of direct experience (we've lived it) and perhaps it's indirect experience (we've read about it).

This connects with something Herbert Simon, another Nobel laureate, wrote on expertness and intuition:

We have seen that a major component of expertise is the ability to recognize a very large number of specific relevant cues when they are present in any situation, and then to retrieve from memory information about what to do when those particular cues are noticed.

Because of this knowledge and recognition capability, experts can respond to new situations very rapidly—and usually with considerable accuracy. Of course, on further thought, the initial reaction may not be the correct one, but it is correct in a substantial number of cases and is rarely irrelevant.

Chess grandmasters, looking at the chessboard, will generally form a hypothesis about the best move within five seconds, and in four out of five cases, this initial hypothesis will be the move they ultimately prefer. Moreover, it can be shown that this ability accounts for a very large proportion of their chess skill. For, if required to play very rapidly, the grandmaster may not maintain a grandmaster level of play but will almost always maintain a master level, even though in rapid play there is time for almost nothing but to react to the first cues that are noticed on the board.

We usually use the word “intuition” – sometimes also “judgment” or even “creativity” – to refer to this ability of experts to respond to situations in their domains of expertise almost instantaneously and relatively accurately.

In his autobiography, Models of My Life, Simon further elaborates on the difference between expert decision makers and the rest of us.

The decision maker of experience has at his disposal a checklist of things to watch out for before finally accepting a decision. A large part of the difference between the experienced decision maker and the novice in these situations is not any particular intangible like “judgment” or “intuition.” If one could open the lid, so to speak, and see what was in the head of the experienced decision-maker, one would find that he had at his disposal repertoires of possible actions; that he had checklists of things to think about before he acted; and that he had mechanisms in his mind to evoke these, and bring these to his conscious attention when the situations for decisions arose.

One of the ways we can acquire “a checklist of things to watch out for” is to learn how the world really works and adapt ourselves accordingly. The best way to do that is to study the time-tested ideas, our Latticework of Mental Models.