In a prior post I began to describe how Michael Porter’s Five Forces, a mainstay in corporate strategy, can be applied to analyze why my brother cannot seem to finish the Harry Potter series and why I have a mounting pile of books on my to-read list.
The analogy between organizational attention and reading works because our minds run on attention span a lot like how organizations run on currency and resources.
The Currency of Human Attention
Advances in neuroscience has discovered that memory comes in many forms: long term memory which is stored diffusely in the brain, short term memory which is stored in the hippocampus, and working memory which is closely related to cognitive attention and involves the executive (aka prefrontal) cortex.
The research on working memory shows that humans can only do one thing at time, and “multitasking” is an illusion that involves quickly switching our brain between two single tasks and pays some overhead “brain power” for the switch. This means if we try to multitask between three objectives, we actually spend significantly less than one-third of our attention span on each. The concept of opportunity cost in economics is the quantification of an organization’s “working memory” in dollar amounts (i.e. a firm with unlimited resources has no opportunity cost).
Porter’s Five Forces is, in essence, an analysis of currency flow. While the currency of business is literally money, the currency of reading is your attention and time. Reading has the remarkable property in that it becomes far less effective and less enjoyable when accompanied by distractions. Just as the Five Forces analysis is designed to identify how to hone a firm’s focus based on who are competing for its profits, the theory can also help us decide which activities are competing for our attention in reading.