Managing the attention budget

A woman facing away from the camera holding a bullhorn to her mouth.

Greg Wilson defined “attention budget” as “the amount of time your activity is allowed to require of other people in an organization.” You’re probably familiar with this, even if you’ve not used that name. Your day fills with announcements, updates, and other communication. The person who sends each message thinks it’s important, but the recipients are drowning in “important” messages. As a program manager, your job includes helping your community manage the attention budget.

This is particularly important for open source projects. Contributors donate their precious time to your project. While people may be willing to forgive wasted time when they’re at work (“At least I’m getting paid!”), wasting volunteer time is squandering a precious resource. Here are a few budgeting tips:

  • Separate the must-know from the good-to-know. Of course everything you say is important. But what’s really important to the reader? The things that everyone truly must know are announcements; the rest are updates.
  • Have a single announcement venue. If people have to go check half a dozen places just to make sure they don’t miss anything, you burn a lot of time. The announcement channel needs to be low volume, so you have to moderate posts to make sure only the truly important stuff gets through.
  • Batch related announcements. To help keep the announcement volume low, collect related announcements into a single post.
  • Make announcements skimmable. Are you writing an email or blog post? Make sure the subject is concise and gives the reader context (every time you put “Please read” in a subject, you owe me a dollar). Summarize the important parts in the first paragraph. Use lists instead of long paragraphs.
  • Include reminders in other communication. You have to assume that some people will miss the announcement. Include references to announcements (or relevant policies/procedures) in future communication. You don’t need to repeat the whole message (that’s a great way to burn budget), but a link for those who need a refresh helps everyone.
  • Say no more than you need to. People don’t need the whole flowery backstory. Tell them what they need to know. If you want to provide more context, add it at the end or in a separate, low-priority message.
  • Make status updates visible. Just because status updates don’t go in the announcement mechanism, that doesn’t mean you should keep them to yourself. If people can go find out the current status of the things they care about (whether it’s in a blog post or an email thread or a kanban board), they don’t have to ask you. That saves your time and theirs.

This post’s featured photo by Maayan Nemanov on Unsplash.

Ben formerly led open source messaging at Docker and was the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.


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