Managing your Attention capacity with 4Cs Attention Filter

An important personal resource for knowledge workers is Attention. It can be difficult to decide what gets attention and what doesn’t. In an information-rich world, there is more and more competing for your attention.

The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention.
~ James Gleick

Quick and confident decisions about your Attention can be particularly difficult when you want to be open to what is emerging around you. Common advice to minimise overload is “Just say No”. However, a simple “Yes” or “No” doesn’t work when things aren’t black or white but rather shades of grey.

Attention is a precious resource not to be squandered on trivial things that don’t matter to you – things that are distractions, or noise that unwittingly caught your attention. By setting meaningful boundaries, you can create criteria to aid purposeful decision-making about what is worthy of your attention.

What kind of attention to give

The 4Cs Attention Filter can be helpful for organising your attention by defining the type of attention to be given. The Filter categories are Committed, Contributing, Curious and Cease. Three of the Cs are shades of grey for when you want to say “Yes – with limits” and the fourth C is the classic “No”.

COMMITTED – Things that get ongoing deep attention; things to which you have a strong and pervasive commitment; things where the buck stops with you; things where you are actively scanning for new information.
CONTRIBUTING – Things that get momentary deep attention; things to which you have some strong attachment, however, you can care about with little or no responsibility.
CURIOUS – Things that get light and occasional attention, mostly when something crosses your path, not things you are actively pursuing.
CEASE – Things not worthy of any attention at all.

Think of the Filter as organising ‘Things I am interested in’ rather than ‘Things I am doing’, that is, ‘Topics’ rather than ‘Activity’.

Here’s an example of how my Filter is currently set (as at March 2012) for vocational or professional interests.

This is a reflection of where my interests currently lie; it isn’t a reflection of the depth of my competencies. With this filter, I can quickly make decisions about which meetings and conferences I attend, which groups I belong to, which blogs and books I subscribe or read, which conversations I contribute to, and to which people/conversations I’ll give priority.

With the Filter set, things that attract my attention pass through the Filter and stick to the category to which they match and therefore get the type of Attention associated with that category.

The 4Cs Attention Filter is not intended for planning or organising an action list, though it may contribute to setting some scope for a list of activities. For a technique to organise and prioritise your activities, read Mastering your workload.

Determining your Attention Capacity

Your capacity for purposeful Attention is a factor of breadth and depth. To use a scuba diving analogy: the oxygen you have available in your tank is a factor of how deep you dive as well as how long you dive. Deeper dives require more oxygen than shallower dives, even if the duration of the dive is the same. With a finite underwater oxygen capacity, a diver makes life-dependent decisions about how many dives can be made and to what depth.

So it is with your attention capacity. You need to factor how many things you will give deep attention (i.e. Committed) in relation to the breadth of things to which you will give attention.

Set limits for each ‘Yes’ category about the number of things to which you can purposefully attend. Typically there will be less items in categories characterised by deeper attention, i.e. Committed, and Contributing. To get started, a useful rule of thumb might be 3 things in Committed, 4 in Contributing, 10 in Curious.

The Limit is designed to help you maintain a sustainable Attention load. Be sure not to add items to a category without first considering what must be subtracted from that category.

What kind of attention you have been giving

Check where your attention is, and has been going, with a quick audit. Of the things that currently have your attention, in which Attention category do they fit?

Look at your list. If you have been feeling overwhelmed, you may have too many things in the Committed category which need a depth of attention you can’t give. Or maybe you have too many things across all categories which need a breadth of attention you haven’t got.

To reduce your attention load, downgrade items to another Attention category, either permanently or for a defined period of time.

To control attention means to control experience, and therefore the quality of life.
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Attention is a precious personal resource. So manage it in a sustainable manner, and be sure to spend it on what matters to you.

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.

4 thoughts on “Managing your Attention capacity with 4Cs Attention Filter

  1. Hey Helen,
    I really like this way of mapping my attention capability and potential. I’ve put it to immediate use.
    See you at the School of Social Entrepreneurs.

  2. An additional thought from the author:
    Attention Capacity is about the ‘new’ things that come across your mental radar and capture your attention, and not the work you are doing or need to do. Attention is a mental capacity, not a time capacity.
    For example, I need to do Housework, but it doesn’t feature on my (personal) Attention Filter because I don’t seek any new information about Housework, I wouldn’t go to a meetup about Housework, read a book about Housework, follow a blog about Housework, spend time day dreaming about doing Housework differently! Now cooking … (on a personal Attention Filter, if I was using one) would sit at the Curious level – which means I’d gratefully receive a new cookbook or suggestion for doing something creative with the extra spring onions I grew this season – and that’s about the extent of the Attention I would give Cooking.

  3. I struggle a bit with intellectualizing this, i.e. putting a thing in a box without understanding where it will move next. I think there’s a strong link to “feeling” or intuition here and see;
    1. Some things moving up and down the filter like when you fall in love with something but it doesn’t last very long.
    2. Some things you will focus your attention for a long time (like a long relationship to continue the love metaphor)
    3. Some things that will never move from the “committed” level of the filter, i.e. it’s a life long love thing.

    So there might be another dimension here which indicates time and how long you keep things at each level, which is not a rational decision (for ex I will be attracted to vertical farming for 6 months…).

    And the personal challenge is of course to know/feel whether it’s a “crush” or “deep love” when you’re attracted to an idea.

    • I’m attracted to your ‘falling in love’ metaphor. Crush = Curious? Committed = Deep Love?
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      The notion of Attention I refer to here is about ‘new’ information coming in – things that have the power to Attract or Distract you.
      Things you have embedded, adopted or integrated into your life may not appear in your Filters. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t important or significant. The Filters are not meant to represent the entirety of your life – just how you want to deal with new stuff that’s coming in.

      Conceptual models do have their limits. For that reason, I choose only to apply the Filter to my vocational life and not my personal life.
      I set my filter for a limited period of time (i.e. 3 months) and then review whether its still applicable. When I’m reviewing I strongly draw upon my intuition about what to set the Filters. Once the filters are set, I’m happy to trust that for the next period my Attention will be effectively and productively focused.

      I believe ‘the universe’ will bring what I need to my attention. Setting the Filter is, to some degree, a conscious Intention setting.

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