43 Folders

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”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Closed Doors and Casualties in the "Coup d'attention"

'Weird how people bow, scrape, and apologize for the interruptors of their work. Corporate America is Stockholm Syndrome with a power tie.'

Last night, I got home from a lovely one-day trip to do some speaking, and I was catching up on a couple emails before I went to bed. One of the messages was a thoughtful note from someone who works in the US Government (and whose name, job, and identifying elements I'm changing to protect his or her privacy).

"Sally," I'll call her, likes the 43 Folders stuff, but has legitimate concerns about how all this "attention management" stuff might send a wrong or hostile message to her colleagues. It's a great point.

As is so often the case, I ended up realizing I had a lot to say in the response, and, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to share what I had to say to Sally with you, as well. Especially since it's a question that's been coming up a lot, and I'm happy to have had the chance to address it at length.

The Question to Me

“Does managing your attention have to mean acting like a jerk?”

A Nice Exchange with "Sally"

"Sally Griffith" wrote:

Heya, Merlin - big fan of all your talks and trying to figure out a way to get the [BIG US GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENT] to hire you to speak to we [KNOWLEDGE WORKERS] who really produce nothing but knowledge - and then only occasionally.

I just looked at your new slide deck. The one thing I didn't see (but you may have covered it in your patter) are the intangible "costs" of working in this way. An open door policy gets you interrupted, but pays off in morale and people thinking that you care. Walling yourself off from distractions, you project a nasty image: if I ever were to give anybody a token that says "don't waste my time," instant loathing and mockery would ensue. So might be a topic for a future MM talk: How do you do Inbox Zero w/o sacrificing the intangibles?

Then I replied:

To me, what's important is to make yourself accessible to the people who need you when they need you, but within reason -- this is really different from ceding 100% access to anyone anytime. That...is insane, and it does favors only for the people who can't be bothered to get their shit together and honor a reasonable schedule. (IMHO)

This is all about managing expectations.

Do Not DisturbToday I learned about a guy who's one of the most respected and admired people in his company; and everybody in the company knows that his door is closed (really closed -- no interruptions, no exceptions) all morning every morning. That? That is when he works. Then after lunch, through the end of the day, his door never closes -- yes, come in and "interrupt" all you want. That's the whole idea. And it works great.

He's hugely successful, not because he says, "Sure! Squander my time whenever it occurs to you," but because he essentially tells the world, "Look: both of our time is valuable; I will make time for you, but never for a minute think that I'm your Mommy."

He's created an expectation people understand and respect. So they get their shit together before they ever consider asking for his attention. That's some Batman-level shit, if you ask me.

Also? People will always despise you if you end up doing less stupid BS than they choose to suffer. If you start to firewall your time, it makes you look like a "snob," right? Meh. I understand and acknowledge your point -- it's up to each of us how to decide the most civil way to get what we need. And, certainly, jokey stuff like Mike's meeting tokens don't necessarily need to govern the way you choose to treat actual people. I should make that clearer, but I guess I hope that's always understood: this all has to be adjusted to _what works for you_.

But I reject the idea that we should sweat those people who refuse to understand why attention is worth being picky about in the first place. If they can't respect that in themselves, of course they won't respect that in you. They aren't capable. And, if you ask me, it's time to stop positively reinforcing that kind of execrable behavior.

Then Sally responded:

Point taken. I'm shocked that you took the time to reply. You are a mensch.


Then I said:

For you, Sally? Anything! :-)

Because here's the real (REAL) secret of attention management: once you stop doing all the stuff you don't care about, you get an extraordinary amount of time to do the stuff you DO care about. Like making a connection with nice, thoughtful people like Sally Griffith.

Make sense?

your new internet friend,

Odd Man Out

Here's the thing. It's like being able to see The Matrix; once you realize the control you can choose to exercise regarding your attention, you'll start to see all the unnecessary waste that everybody else thinks is unavoidable, natural, and even healthy ("I NEVER shut off my BlackBerry!"). See? Now, you are the weird one. Weirdo.

But, man, what a difference it makes to see (but ignore) all those things that you used to allow in. Things that now just bounce off you like raindrops. While everybody else is walking around wearing sponges.

Guy on the Soap Box

Also? Yeah. I understand that I have a really strong personality and know how to push a button until it breaks. That doesn't mean you have to love me or try to emulate me -- you know what you need to do to be the person you want to be.

But, I also tend to shrug my shoulders at folks who charge that this kind of attitude is too aggressive. Maybe. Maybe not.

I believe this is a message that needs to reach everyone, and I'm entirely willing to risk people disagreeing with or actively disliking what I have to say if it means that people who feel they've lost control of their life may get to hear it and realize for themselves why this stuff matters. Today.

Why We Fight

As with any revolution, the attention management coup will not be without its (metaphorical) blood, toil, sweat, and tears. C'est la guerre.

Today, you can find 10,000 reasons to keep letting people, institutions, and media noise continue to waste your life. I have only one reason you should not, so I say it over and over again. Often loudly:

Your attention needs a defender. And the people who want you to apologize for that are precisely the reason you need a stronger and more unapologetic defense.

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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