Putting a Number on the Entirety of Your Existence

I recently decided to wipe the slate and start my blog from scratch. However, there are some articles from my past that I'd like to update and reintroduce to the blog. For the next several weeks, I'll be sharing some of these articles. If you've been following my writing since the beginning of The Simpler Life, you may recognize some of them. More than likely, however, this will be brand new content to you.

The most scarce resource in the world isn’t oil, water, or anything else you can wrap your hands around. You could make an argument for Time, but I’d like to take it even a step further. 

Our ability to pay attention to is truly what our lives consist of. What we allow to have our attention in terms of thoughts, observations, and actions is completely non-refundable and non-renewable. How much of our lives is spent barely attending to what is happening around us and how much of it is spent truly immersed in what has our attention?

In class last week, Professor Czikszentmihalyi spent a substantial amount of time talking about how what we choose to attend to will make up the details of our lives. In order to really drive the point home he took us through the following progression:

Studies have shown that you can attend to 5-7 bits of information “at a time.” A bit of information is any sensation, thought or other piece of information that enters your consciousness. “At a time” refers to about 1/15 of a second. With this information you can then extrapolate how many bits of information you can handle per minute, per hour, per day, and per year. Multiply that number by the average life expectancy and you can get a rough estimate of how many bits of information you can attend to in your entire life. In class, that number came out to 150 billion bits. That sounds like a huge number, but is it?

When talking about the entirety of everything you could possibly experience, think, or do over the course of your lifetime that number starts to look much smaller. Putting a number on the limit of human experience is a very humbling exercise.

 The take away from this activity, then, is to think about how you’re going to utilize the limited amount of attention that you have at your disposal. Basically, are you going to fill your attention or are you going to allow it to be filled?

What’s the difference?

Allowing Your Attention to Be Dictated

  • Mindlessly watching television: It takes approximately 60 bits/second to understand human speech. Think about the number of bits of information that you’re using every time you plop into the front of the television to watch something inane. Those are bits you’ll never get back and can never be used on something to make your life more enjoyable.
  • Not living in a way aligned with your values: Your values help provide order and priority to the way you spend your bits of attention. Figuring out what you truly care about on a basic level and then aligning your actions and your attention with those values is almost a surefire path to increased wellbeing.

Controlling Your Attention

  • Approaching each moment mindfully: The bits of information that make up your life will be used up regardless of whether or not you’re aware of them. Not approaching each second of your life mindfully, with an awareness and appreciation of the moment, means that your attention is being squandered away. Take a moment to step back and ask yourself what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, and what you’re experiencing. Try to make mindfulness a part of your life.
  • Participating in active vs. passive leisure: Most people spend about a third of their waking hours in some sort of leisure pursuit. Obviously, not all leisure is created equally. Dr. Czikszentmihalyi has done research that has shown people who pursue active leisure activities vs. passive leisure report more instances of flow, more happiness, and greater overall wellbeing. Active leisure is characterized by the pursuit of intrinsically motivating hobbies and the intentional use of attention. Passive leisure is characterized by lethargy, decreased happiness, and decreased mental activity. Try to pick active leisure as much as possible.

The main take away from this idea of attention management is that we are all given essentially the same number of bits of information to utilize in our lives. We must approach our understanding of attention with the knowledge that we control it. At the end of our lives, the totality of our life will be the way we used our 170 billion bits of information. The more bits that you directly controlled, experienced, and chose, the better off you’ll inevitably be.

How do you control and develop your attention? Are there any strategies you’ve used that have been helpful?