Hey there, Dean here. I run SEO and content at AppSumo. Here, I write articles and share book notes on productivity, leadership, money, psychology, and more.

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Protect Your Attention Like It's Your Most Valuable Resource (Because It Is)

How to make the things that matter most to you matter

One goal I’ve had since the past two years is to grow this personal blog into a self-sustaining project.

I wasn’t trying to get rich here. But to create a new revenue stream to cover the blog expenses so that I can spend more time here. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out as planned.

I spent a good portion of my time writing here and on Quora in 2017 and 2018. The work had helped me grow a small community of readers.

Then it plateaued. What happened?

The theory of agency

Back in 1976, two economists, Michael Jensen and William Meckling had a question:

Why don’t managers always behave in ways that are in the best interest of shareholders?

They then published a paper focusing on managerial behavior and agency theory.

Through their research, they found that the root cause is that people work in accordance with how they get paid. Managers don’t just work for a company, they work for themselves too.

The key takeaway was to create a win-win environment—that organizations have to align the interests of executives with the interests of shareholders to produce the results they want.

It could be a bad thing when companies align the incentives in getting executives to drive the share price up in the expenses of the customers and public. But that’s the story for another day.

Here’s the silver lining:

An organization can say all about the audacious missions they want to accomplish, but until they allocate their resources (in the above case, how it incentivizes their people) to align with the missions, nothing happens.

The lesson

You can say all about what matters to you, but until you allocate your resources to align with it, nothing will happen.

We can find similar patterns in other areas of our businesses and lives too:

  • We want to build an organization with meaningful culture and integrity, but won’t stop chasing growth and revenue.
  • We want to improve the relationships with our family but are spending all the time at work.
  • We want to learn and grow more but can’t stop distracting ourselves with short-term, immediate pleasures.

It’s not an exception for things on a smaller scale.

For example, I wanted to lose fat, but at the same time, I was fixated on strength gain and not looking skinny. My weight and body fat ended up bouncing up and down without making any clear progress.

It frustrated me to not seeing results from this blog, this personal project. But deep down, I was expecting it to miss the mark. Because I wasn’t allocating my resources here.

The same goes for my fitness progress, swinging between fat loss and strength gain.

Especially for this blog during 2020, I didn’t have any success criteria and metrics. I didn’t have a coherent plan and strategy. I didn’t even have a set routine to get the required work done. Why would it turn out differently?

On the other hand, while I don’t have a long-term (>5 years) vision for a day job, I’m crushing it.

We hit the goals we set at AppSumo. I got better at what I do week after week. There’s quarterly metrics I need to hit, set routines to get work done, and a team of A-players that keep me accountable.

It’s inevitable for me to fail with this blog, but it’s more likely for me to succeed at AppSumo, regardless of what I say I wanted to do.

Because the resources weren’t aligned with the former but do with the latter.

Protect your attention or die

So what are the resources?

In an organization, resources are capital and labor. For an individual, they are our time and energy. While money is a form of resource, we need to put in the time and energy to exchange for money in the first place.

And here’s what you get out of time and energy:

Time x Energy = Attention

In other words, your most valuable resource is your attention. So protect it. Do that like it’s the most precious thing in the world. And make sure you’re channeling it to things that matter to you most.

Footnotes

  1. I first stumbled across the paper, Theory of the firm, in the book How Will You Measure Your Life.
  2. Cover image by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash.

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