“Just Leave Me Alone Goddammit!”*

The basic argument I want to make is that we’ve been thinking about labor and human capital imprecisely,** and we would do better to think of labor as the selective application of attention, and habit (which economizes on attention) as the basic essence of human capital.


The kernel of this idea was planted when I read Pragmatic Thinking and Learning a few years ago. An important point it makes is that whenever our work is interrupted it takes something like 15 minutes to get back to work. Mental work is like barbecuing (or what the uninitiated erroneously call “smoking”). After 8 hours of cooking your guests are impatient (and drunk) and want you to check the meat. So you open up the barbecue and a plume of smoke billows out. You put in a meat thermometer and sure enough, the meat isn’t done. But now it’s going to take another 15 minutes for enough to smoke to build up to get the process moving again. 20 minutes later people want you to check again. (And that’s why our parties back in San Jose so often dragged on so long.) Showing up to work for 8 hours a day isn’t sufficient for getting your work done; sometimes you just need your boss to leave you alone long enough for you to focus deeply enough to solve the problem you’re facing.

Or we could think of work like juggling. Working on some difficult problem, you’ve got a few pieces of mental material in the air. When someone knocks on your door (or you take notice of an email notification on your phone) you drop the balls. Getting them going again takes some effort, so even a one second interruption sets you back a few minutes. Those of us who work at desks are familiar with how difficult thinking can be. Managing our attention takes effort. But with practice we can get better at coping with distractions and skipping the easy, but unproductive paths offered to us.

And what about grunt work? There’s less attention necessary (perhaps rhythm serves a role in maintaining that minimal bit of attention), but nobody gets paid for not doing what they’re told. Your job is to keep applying effort in the appropriate way. The only human capital you really need is what is necessary to get out of bed and get to work every day.

Habit Capital

People who smoke cigarettes, they say “You don’t know how hard it is to quit smoking.” Yes I do. It’s as hard as it is to start flossing.

Mitch Hedberg

Habit offers a means of economizing on attention. Instead of using up our mental capacity to decide to brush my teeth every day, I just do it automatically. Flossing is not so easy… except that I was able to make it a habit by piggybacking it on an existing habit.

Many of the skills we have are built on a collection of complex little habits, whether it’s muscle memory (you must watch the video above), understanding how to read graphs, or bearing in mind that everything has an opportunity cost.

(Obviously) getting a college degree is not the same as accumulating human capital. What college does (we hope) is inculcate students with critical thinking habits and some basic knowledge deemed necessary or particularly helpful for navigating the world. Learning on the job is similarly about providing workers with habits, and both positive and normative knowledge (i.e. factual knowledge and norms/beliefs/corporate culture). Growing up is about building up human capital largely in the form of internalized norms (moral habits). Habits are everywhere and they’re at the core of what we mean when we use the term human capital.

Habit capital allow us to direct our attention to critical areas in the same way physical capital allows us to leverage (and ultimately replace) our physical effort. By establishing habits we can get certain things done (teeth brushed, books read, etc.) while conserving attention. This takes more attention upfront just as physical capital requires upfront investment.


Economists generally don’t think much about bombs as an investment. Bombs require foregoing current consumption, but once they’re made, they’re intended to get a negative return by destroying something of value. Physical anticapital, as a social scientific idea, falls primarily in the domain of International Relations. Which isn’t to say economists haven’t thought about investments that destroy value. The idea of rent seeking is an important one, but it’s one that has been rationalized.

There’s probably not much to gain by thinking about rent seeking as investment in anticapital.*** But we can bring bad habits out of the purview of irrationality and bring it into the warm, rational glow of economics with the concept of human anticapital.

Just like in biological evolution, we’re satisficing, not optimizing. Habits may initially be adaptive and turn bad as circumstances change. We should expect a tendency towards “good” habits–and how those habits propagate is certainly an interesting question–but we should also expect the odd bizarre byproduct, misfire, and obsolete habits to emerge.

“We are still very close to our ancestors who roamed the savannah. The formation of our beliefs is fraught with superstitions–even today (I might say, especially today). Just as one day some primitive tribeman scratched his nose, saw rain falling, and developed an elaborate method of scratching his nose to bring on the much-needed rain, we link economic prosperity to some rate cut by the Federal Reserve Board, or the success of a company with the appointment of the new president “at the helm.”

Nassim Taleb


Attention matters more than time. Habit economizes on attention. Mental work involves applying mental tools to particular problems and habit allows us to do so more or less automatically. In other words, habit is human capital.****

*That’s one possible title for the next paper I want to write. A more boring but descriptive possibility is “Habit Capital.” Another with more regional flavor is “Hey! I’m Working Here!” Maybe I’m not very good at titles…

**This follows in a similar vein as my entrepreneurship research which basically boils down to: entrepreneurship theory is good, but our empirical measures suck.

***Although I should mention that thinking about rates of depreciation will surely shed light on rent seeking questions.

****I’ll leave it for the comments to sort out whether it’s the only sort of human capital. Maybe you can also help me sort out how to wrap belief, understanding, and learning into this view.


3 thoughts on ““Just Leave Me Alone Goddammit!”*

  1. […] It could simply be transaction costs, but I think we can go deeper. Boulding’s factors give a more refined view of both labor and capital, but he’s still missing the fundamental kernel of labor. It’s not our know-how that matters–we all know we’re supposed to save for retirement and yet we don’t. It’s not that we don’t have enough energy. What’s missing is an appreciation of attention. […]

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