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Work Ethic 2.0: Attention Control

The industrial revolution didn't arise out of nowhere, and it didn't arise everywhere. It was made possible by the emergence of a set of personal values that came to be known as the "work ethic."

The idea behind this meme -- inconceivable 400 years ago -- is that hard work is good for its own sake. Hard work makes you a better person. With hard work, our parents told us, we could grow up to become anything. Work hard, and we could get good grades, elite-school acceptance and scholarships. We could invent things, launch businesses and change the world. "Genius," Thomas Edison told us, "is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."

This industrial-age work ethic has its variants, including the "Protestant work ethic," the "American work ethic," and the "Asian work ethic" to name a few. The success or failure of regions, nations and subcultures has been massively influenced by the degree to which populations embrace the value of hard work. And that's why the idea is hammered into kids in school, and lauded and rewarded in the workplace.

When the "information age" started replacing the "industrial age," hard work seemed more important than ever. Until the 1980s, to use a computer was to program it. Silicon Valley corporate culture, from tiny startups to the massive Googleplex, emphasizes long hours and feverish work.

But since the turn of the new millennium, the nature of work has evolved to the point where hard work is becoming less important to a successful work ethic than another, more useful value: attention.

The New Work Ethic

Columnist David Brooks, commenting in the Dec. 16th New York Times about Malcolm Gladwell's latest book called "Outliers," made a statement as profound as it was accurate: "Control of attention is the ultimate individual power," he wrote. "People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them."

But why is that truer now than ten or twenty years ago? Why will it be truer still ten or twenty years from now? As I wrote in May, Internet distractions evolve to become ever more "distracting" all the time -- like a virus. Distractions now "seek you out."

Distractions mask the toll they take on productivity. Everyone finishes up their work days exhausted, but how much of that exhaustion is from real work, how much from the mental effort of fighting off distractions and how much from the indulgence of distractions?

Pundits like me are constantly talking about Facebook, Twitter, blogs and humor sites, not to mention old standbys like e-mail and IM. One gets the impression that we should be "following" these things all day long, and many do. So when does the work get done? When do entrepreneurs start and manage their businesses? When do writers write that novel? When do IT professionals keep the trains running on time? When does anyone do anything?

The need for "attention," rather than "hard work," as the centerpiece of the new work ethic has arisen along with the rise of distractions carried on the wings of Internet protocol. In one generation, we've gone from a total separation of "work" from "non-work" to one in which both work and play are always sitting right in front of us.

Now, we find ourselves with absolutely nothing standing between us and a universe of distractions -- nothing except our own abilities to control attention. Porn, gambling, funny videos, flirting, socializing, playing games, shopping -- it's all literally one click away. Making matters worse, indulging these distractions looks just like work. And it's easy to work and play at the same time -- and call it work. These new, increasingly compelling distractions get piled on to older ones -- office pop-ins, e-mail, IM, text messages, meetings and others.

Kids now grow up with the whole range of distractions, from big-screen TVs to video games to cell phones to PCs in their rooms. They're addicted to screens before they even start high school. Their attention spans have been whittled down to seconds, and their expectations for constant amusement are highly developed.

In a world in which entire industries bet their businesses on gaining access to our attention, which value leads to better personal success: hard work or the ability to control attention?

A person who works six hours a day but with total focus has an enormous advantage over a 12-hour-per-day workaholic who's "multi-tasking" all day, answering every phone call, constantly checking Facebook and Twitter, and indulging every interruption.

It's time we upgraded our work ethic for the age we're living in, not our grandparents' age. Hard work is still a virtue, but now takes a distant second place to the new determinant of success or failure in the age of Internet distractions: Control of attention.

Hard work is dead. Are you paying attention?

In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan+datamation@gmail.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.