attention is your bandwidth for changing the universe


human attention is the most valuable quantity yet known to humanity. it is the sole link between the platonic realm of ideas and the real world.

every human has a finite supply of attention, plus any attention that is given by others. the word “given” here is appropriate, as attention can never be taken. there can be dire consequences, threats, violence, etc., but in the end every individual has the ultimate and final veto on what to focus their attention on. this implies that all attention is voluntarily given to that which the individual believes is most valuable to devote their attention to at any given moment. that individual may not be trying very hard to find the most valuable thing beyond their immediate grasp, or they may be mistaken about their beliefs of what was valuable and wish they had done something different ex post facto, but in the moment, they are focusing on that which they implicitly believe benefits them the most to focus on.

if there is something that we value, we either have it already and don’t want to lose it, or want to get it. short of amazing luck, where the universe happens to produce and sustain the very things we value the most without any effort on our part, we have to do something different to get aforementioned valuable things.

people get disconnected from their thoughts. the thought of wanting something is severed from the reality of what concrete steps could be taken to obtain the thing. for all coherent visions of what the future should be, that an individual can imagine, there must be some series of changes that can be made to the material world which would result in that outcome. that is not to say the result is guaranteed.

the plan

we should think of each action as having a probability of success, success being a durable change which then allowed the next step to reliably be attempted. and so we can imagine a sort of Drake Equation for evaluating plans, where we multiply the probability of success of each of the plan’s steps together to produce an estimate of the probability of the whole plan succeding.

graph TD S([current state - 1.0]) --> P1 P1[step 1 - 0.99] --> P2 P2[step 2 - 0.9] --> P3 P3[step 3 - 0.5] --> P4 P4[step 4 - 0.99] --> goal goal([plan total - 0.441045])

these numbers and this plan are just throwaway examples to elaborate the point. each step of the plan is some change in the universe we want to see. the current state of the universe is a probability 1.0, that means it is certain that things are the way they are right now. this sounds and in fact is tautological, but it emphasizes the point that if you make no changes, nothing will be different.

a quick look at the above plan shows that step 3 is the most risky, a 50/50 shot of success. so perhaps we can elaborate our plan and include another way that we could accomplish step 3 with the same 50/50 shot of success:

graph TD S([current state - 1.0]) --> P1 P1[step 1 - 0.99] --> P2 P2[step 2 - 0.9] --> P3A P2[step 2 - 0.9] --> P3B P3A[step 3A - 0.5] --> P4 P3B[step 3B - 0.5] --> P4 P4[step 4 - 0.99] --> goal goal([plan total - 0.6615675])

the new plan succeeds if each step succeeds, except for step 3. now we’ve split that out into two possible paths to success, where the plan succeeds if either step 3a or step 3b succeeds, where each individually is a coin toss, but the probability that at least one of the two will succeed is 0.75. this pulls the plan’s total probability of success up from ~0.44 to ~0.66.

the point is not to get into probability theory and the logic of planning so much as to emphasize that any change you can define well enough can potentially be achieved. the chances of success if you don’t try are exactly 0.0.

plans within plans

for the purpose of expanding our pattern language, each step of a plan could itself be a plan that breaks down the individual tasks needed to achieve that step, and so on, as deep as is helpful to go.


in human learning the process called chunking is where we learn the specific low-level steps of an activity, and our brain is able to bundle them together such that we don’t need to address each step individually anymore, but can access the chunk as a whole, thereby reducing the amount of mental effort required to perform complex tasks. a good example is driving. when one first learns how to drive, it seems difficult to manage all the various activities that need to be monitored and adjusted to keep the car safely on the road making progress towards a destination. but as one practices, these activities are gradually pushed down below the layer of conscious effort, such that we can get in the car and simply will ourselves to “drive to the store”, and not have to break that down into pieces like “cross-over left and and right hands on the steering wheel so I can turn it more than 90 degrees in any one direction”.


in the video linked in the following tweet is @jackbutcher elaborating on the meaning of the above tweet. he emphasizes the idea that if your attention is spread across multiple fronts, you will achieve none of them, whereas if it is focused on a single goal, you are much more likely to achieve that goal. in the context of planning, this would be the equivalent of taking the first step of several plans and never coming back to complete the rest of the steps.

there’s much more to say about attention, how it can be spent, whether it’s entirely fungible from moment to moment, etc.

1018 Words

2021-03-12 18:00 -0600