Your Focus Is Priceless. Stop Giving It Away.

This is the eyeball economy, and your eyeballs are for sale

matt richtel
Published in
7 min readJun 19, 2019


Illustration: Seba Cestaro

Do you want a single takeaway from the 21st century so far? Here it is: To the focused go the spoils.

Have I already lost your attention? No wonder. You’re being pulled in a bunch of directions at high speed.

Remember the medieval execution routine of tying someone to four horses, each slapped on the backside to run in a different direction, yanking the poor soul to pieces? This is now happening to your focus. Your own personal horses might well be any of the following: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, your spouse, your partner, Grubhub, Fortnite, this essay, and so forth. Your focus is the person in the middle, being flung to bits.

What do you do about it? How do you maintain focus? How do you get those spoils?

But first, let’s tackle another question: What do I mean by focus?

The cocktail party effect

Much of what we know about the fragility of focus comes from the Battle of Britain. In the aftermath of World War II —as I learned while interviewing cognitive neuroscientists for my book on attention science, A Deadly Wandering — British scientists were trying to understand why Royal Air Force pilots and radar operators sometimes got distracted as they were defending their skies from Nazi bomb squads. It seemed absurd to think that these dedicated men and women, in the flush of a death battle, with the lives of their countrymen at stake, would zone out.

And yet they did indeed lose focus — pilots gazing out the window, radar operators daydreaming while staring at the screen — leading to mistakes, and even deaths.

In the decade following the war, researchers built a handful of experiments to explain the essential nature of attention, focus, and the distinction between the two. One of them, a cognitive scientist named Colin Cherry, eventually came up with a concept known as the “cocktail party effect.”

Focus is essentially binary. It’s there or it isn’t. And, importantly, it can’t be divided.



matt richtel
Writer for

ny times journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner, bestselling thriller writer. details at