attention deficit

Attention Allocation: Applying Portfolio Investment Strategy to Information Overload

Would you pay money for something without knowing the price? Not likely. Would you pay attention to something without knowing the price? Most of us do every day…

In the information age, we have finger-tip access to a staggering amount of information, collectively described as “media noise,” vying for our attention: We have the old print media, such as magazines, newspapers, and books; and we have the electronic media, such as radio, satellite radio, cable television, satellite television, video games, internet search engines, websites, personal pages and blogs.

As we, knowingly or unknowingly, consume staggering amounts of information every day, do we ever stop to think about the price of that consumption?

Information Rich, Attention Poor

“… 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 (1916 – 2001)

I wonder if Mr. Simon had any idea how prescient his words would be today when he wrote them more than 35 years ago. Just since passing in 2001, over 70 million blogs have entered the realm of mass media. It would be easy to assume, even for the most informed individual, that the information age and the more recent proliferation of information sources and advancement of electronic media, that the average person sitting at home with their laptop could capture the kind of efficiencies that would maximize the potential of mankind itself.

The great irony and paradox of these seemingly limitless boundaries of information is that, rather than increasing our efficiencies and knowledge, they actually limit our attention; thereby distracting us away from the potential that the information sources could actually bring.

What can be done about this “poverty of attention?” Today more than ever, the “need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information” is as crucial as ever.

The Foundation of Asset Allocation

“Moderation, which consists in indifference about little things, and in a prudent and well-proportioned zeal about things of importance, can proceed from nothing but true knowledge, which has its foundation in self-acquaintance.”

Plato (428 – 348 BC)

Most people associate the term “asset allocation” with the investment of assets (stocks, bonds, and cash) and how they are arranged in an investor’s “portfolio.” Essentially, Plato’s moderation and self-acquaintance are the foundation of asset allocation, which, if done properly, will provide a balanced mix of investment assets that reflect the individual’s risk tolerance and investment objectives, or investment personality (self-acquaintance).

Allocating attention, in principle, is no different and can be applied in a similar manner to construct a “portfolio” of information sources:

  • Have a Plan: If you have no plan, you may as well be planning to fail. Have an “end” in mind when beginning your portfolio.
  • Have a Strategy: What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to expand your knowledge, blow off steam with mindless entertainment, or some combination thereof? Your allocation should reflect your objective and suit your personality.
  • Keep it Simple and Balanced: Put simply, life is full of complex challenges – most of them are not necessary. Simplicity and moderation are wise.
  • Build Around a Core Holding: In my investment advisory practice, I recommend a “passive” (large-cap index) fund for a core investment holding that represents the largest portion (perhaps 40% or so) of the investment portfolio and then a few non-correlated “satellite” funds to compliment the core holding and comprise the remainder of the portfolio. As for information sources, I prefer a similar approach: My “core” is non-fiction / inspirational, and/or educational books; I subscribe to one newspaper and one magazine that reflect my interests; I follow about five Blogs (some educational, some “mindless”); and I watch some (but very little) television.
  • Diversify, Diversify, Diversify: Each information source will have its own purpose (low correlation to other sources) within the portfolio and will have “weights” that correspond to your objective. For example, ICanHasCheesburger and PickTheBrain obviously have low correlation to each other, yet each can find a place in your portfolio; however, your objective will define which will receive the heavier weight…
  • Beware of Bias: Interests should not have competition. Just as an investor should be wary of advisors paid by commission, consumers of information should attach doubt to information coming from biased sources, such as the federal government or any entity that sells advertising… Unless your interests are strictly for entertainment, look for altruism, honesty, and transparency whenever it can be found.
  • The Bottom Line: Quality over quantity is prudent.

“You can not see a mountain near.” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

I would add to Emerson’s metaphor by saying that “there is a value in studying each pebble on the mountain’s path, but you may lose your way if you do not know what the mountain looks like.” Maintaining a “big picture” view has the effect of enhancing our awareness and broadening our perspective. The old adage of “missing the forest for the trees” comes to mind.

With regard to attention, information we receive is either occupying our mind or cultivating our mind. Neither is inherently wrong but having the wisdom to know the difference, the self-acquaintance to know which sources (or combination thereof) will best serve our objectives (and why), and the discipline to apply moderation is prudent allocation.

As consumers of information, we must be cognizant of what information consumes — our attention. Ironically, more information does not equal more knowledge: It equals more distraction. We must be careful in our quest for knowledge not to lose sight of our ultimate objective – the pursuit of a meaningful life.

Kent Thune is the author of the investment blog, The Financial Philosopher, and the President and Founder of Registered Investment Advisory Firm, Atlantic Capital Investments, LLC. Image by cindiann.