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Make your attention intentional …

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Fill our learning bucket with the big stuff

... and more thoughts on how to fill your learning bucket with the big stuff.

About the author: Jeff Hulett is a career banker, data scientist, behavioral economist, and choice architect. Jeff has held banking and consulting leadership roles at Wells Fargo, Citibank, KPMG, and IBM. Today, Jeff is an executive with the Definitive Companies. He teaches personal finance at James Madison University and provides personal finance seminars. Check out his new book -- Making Choices, Making Money: Your Guide to Making Confident Financial Decisions -- at

Technology broadly -- such as Artificial Intelligence, search engines, ChatGPT, GPS, and smartphones -- free our learning capacity.

In the short term, our brains have some time-based upper limits on potential learning volume. Meaning that in a day, we can only learn so much. With a good night's sleep, we will consolidate those learnings. Sleep is how today's learnings are added to your overall learning base. But our short-term learning is subject to the law of scarcity. Within a day, there is a learning budget constraint. Just like other scarce resources, prioritizing what we learn is important. If we fill our day-to-day learning bucket first with the little stuff, there will not be room for the big stuff. Successful prioritization is a function of making our attention intentional.

Prioritize your learning big stuff

Prioritize your learning big stuff

Machines are helpful for outsourcing the learning of little stuff. This includes helpful assistance like the directions to a friend's house or playing our favorite music. To be clear, I'm not saying little stuff is not important. The point is, the little stuff needs to be done good enough. We do not need to overachieve in the little stuff. There is a best way to get to your friend's house... and there is an app for that.

Everyone's little stuff may be defined differently. As an example, you may be a big music aficionado. Getting your music exactly correct is important to you. As such, music is in your big stuff category. For me, I appreciate music. But I do not have a super fine-tuned ear or habituated beliefs about how music "should" be listened to. For me, music should sound good and be convenient when I want to listen. Thus, music is in my little stuff category.

Outsourcing the little stuff frees up our cognitive capacity to learn bigger stuff, like particle physics, knitting, growing a business, or environmental science. These, along with many other possibilities, are the things in which you do want to overachieve. These are your important strategic goals. These are your life priorities. The key to maintaining your capacity for the big stuff is minimizing attention stealers and avoiding complacency.

Attention stealers: Next is an attention-stealing example. To minimize attention stealers, it is best to avoid extended rides down TikTok or other social media rabbit holes. To be clear, some mental diversion is good. It helps when our brain gets temporarily diverted for some R&R. The point is that attention stealers like TikTok have an addictive quality. Attention stealing is a feature of the TikTok algorithm design. Monitoring your attention stealers and course correcting when necessary is helpful.

Avoiding complacency: Avoiding complacency via our natural curiosity is essential for staying at the edge of our learning capacity.  Thorstein Veblen, the economist and sociologist from the 1800s, said it best - "Invention is the mother of necessity." Veblen submits that human curiosity is naturally insatiable. Which is a good thing! It is up to us to enable our curiosity exploration.

Getting the most of our learning capacity: Our learning capacity is dynamic and will expand as we push our learning bucket's capacity. Powered by curiosity, your learning bucket will get bigger! As such, just because a cool but not quite cool enough potential learning does not make the bucket today, it may in the future. Keep it on the list! Also, as discussed next, often cool items that do not make it on the list today will be easier to add in the future. This is a feature of our growing brain and expanding bucket capacity. Thus, adding cool stuff today is not so much a "yes or no" question but a "now or not yet" determination.

Our learning capacity is subject to geometric growth. This means as we learn more, our capacity to learn grows at an increasing rate. Indeed, each person's neuron capacity is generally capped at 87 billion. That is still a lot of learning-building material! But it is our synapses, the network connectors between the neurons, that appear to have no upper limit. Or, if there is some upper synaptic boundary, most people are not close to hitting it. Each neuron may have thousands or tens of thousands of synaptic connections. Synaptic connection growth is the source of our unbounded capacity to learn. The quality of our sleep is essential for consolidating the expanding synaptic learnings of the day. Also, our brains naturally prune unused or damaged synaptic connections. Synaptic pruning is like "adding by subtracting" for your overall bucket's learning capacity. This means that as we learn and grow our learning bucket's capacity, it is easier to add new big stuff items.

What is the big stuff we should learn? Well, that is up to you! Adam Smith was a Scottish political scientist from The Enlightenment era. Today, Smith is widely regarded as the patron saint of market economics. Less known but very relevant to our big stuff learning prioritization theme is Smith's foundational role in behavioral economics. Smith taught the world how our naturally occurring self-interests and the community-optimizing invisible hand are operating in our life's environment. As a subtle part of our life's background, self-interest and the invisible hand's operations are virtually imperceptible. It is via self-interest and the invisible hand that we make the most of all our big stuff. Our motivations, whether selfish, selfless, or a combination of both, will enable the invisible hand to optimize the market for big stuff. By filling your learning bucket with your self-interested big stuff, your contribution has great potential to both accelerate your overall learning and to better serve our world.

Related Resources

1) Would you like to learn about the surprising challenges of making our attention intentional and how to define your big stuff and little stuff categories? Please see the article:

2) Would you like to learn how to grow your learning bucket? Please see the article:

3) Would you like to learn how sleep builds your learning capacity? Please see the article:

4) Would you like to learn how TikTok and other information age attention stealers operate? Please see the article:

5) Would you like to learn more about Adam Smith and the self-interest and invisible hand frameworks? Please see the article:

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