Manage Your Attention, Not Your Time
If there is any one ‘secret’ to effectiveness, it is concentration.
—Peter F. Drucker, management philosopher
“At the end of the day, my brain feels like scrambled eggs!” admitted Phil, an attorney at whose firm I teach. He, like many, was living out the effects of what it means to not prioritize attention in the workday. When distractions abound how do you find focus to get something done?
Make Attention a Priority
My previous post explored what attention is and why it’s important to both quality of life and fundamental effectiveness. Attention is the basic resource or energy you have to invest in your experience. You are what you attend to. It’s that simple.
Let’s go “Big Picture” for a moment. Managing attention has not been on our radar screens because until recently most of us took it for granted. Education has largely emphasized skills for thinking and underemphasized, or ignored altogether, the skills of attending, seeing, and perceiving (let alone feeling). Look at what gets cut from school budgets when times are tough: Arts, sports, and music are the domains that cultivate perception, focus, and their relationship to performance. For good or for ill, we are an “I think therefore I am” culture. Given that, it’s easy to see how even the so-called “well-educated” can overlook attention.
A New Way to Think about What “Well-Educated” Means
Management philosopher Peter F. Drucker understood that going forward truly educated (and effective) people “will need trained perception fully as much as analysis.” In a quickly-changing world, effective people will need to clearly see as much as clearly think. The starting point of this is managing attention and focus. So many stimuli compete for attention, any hope for effectiveness rests on being more conscious of how you use it alone and together with others.
This series of posts intends to create the talking points for you to have a conversation with those you work and live with to make a priority around attention. The more you do that, the better able you will be to stay true to your goals, perform toward your best, and engage the world in a meaningful way.
So many stimuli compete for attention, any hope for effectiveness rests on being more conscious of how you use it alone and together with others.
1. Manage Attention Not Time
People tend to think managing time forms the foundation for able action. Even Drucker thought, “Time is an executive’s scarcest and most precious resource.” However, I believe this is a misperception. Who actually can manage time? Can you make the future come faster or return to the past? Unless you’re a sci-fi hero, no. What people actually do in the flow of time is manage attention.
For example, Phil may block off several hours to work on a case, but if he spends those hours obsessing over baseball stats, we say he mismanaged his time. In reality, his attention wasn’t where it needed to be. No one manages time. We manage our attention.
This point may seem like nitpicking, but I believe it is vital because it gives you a lever you can actually pull. What follows are real-life strategies developed by my students and clients that have worked for them.
2. Name Your Priorities
This sounds simple, but I’ve observed that we don’t name them frequently enough. All too often, we allow the momentum of whatever we’ve been doing to make our decisions for us. Habits are great as long as they’re serving our true intentions or a situation’s real needs. Otherwise, we wake up and go through the motions while missing the important things.
So, the first and most essential step is knowing what your intentions are. Ask yourself: “What’s vital for me to put energy on right now”?” or “Is this the best use of my energy?” These questions can help clarify what’s essential. Intentions also help to say “no” to the less important (but perhaps more urgent). Clarifying intentions brings greater direction to investing energy.
Habits are great as long as they’re serving our true intentions or a situation’s real needs. Otherwise, we wake up and go through the motions while missing the important things.
Ask yourself these questions to clarify your priorities:
- What are you doing to prioritize your day and develop an action plan when you are inevitably interrupted?
- What is okay to say “no” to?
- How will you handle interruptions when they arise?
- Do you hold an assumption that you must respond to any interruption?
- Are you afraid you will be disliked/unloved/fired if you fail to respond immediately to an email?
I’ve consistently found that people have far more latitude in saying no or “later” to incoming requests than they realize.
Priorities apply both to the short- and long-term. In the moment, it means choosing where attention should focus right now. Finish this memo dueor look-up that Yoda quote you can’t quite recall?
In the long run, where we put our attention is central to a sense of meaning and purpose. Is Phil’s diversion into baseball stats and not writing law briefs a sign that maybe he’s bored with being a lawyer? Is there something else he’d rather be doing?
In the long run, where we put our attention is central to a sense of meaning and purpose.
3. Conduct an Attention Audit to Improve Focus
Knowing where attention should go isn’t going to help if you can’t stay there. Distractions destroy focused attention. While I’m not convinced it’s possible to entirely remove them, it is possible to make great strides in creating an environment that promotes and protects attention.
Look at your environment and what is there to support focus or hinder it. Evelyn, a frustrated marketing executive, looked at her workspace through the lens of attention. She immediately noticed that the office copy machine was placed outside her door. The dots connected. She was frustrated because while waiting for their copies, her well-intentioned colleagues would stick their head in her door and chat. This happened several times an hour and she could rarely find focused flow. Eureka! A phone call to facilities to move the machine and she finally enjoyed a day of satisfying concentration.
Look around, what can you do right now? Do you work in an open office environment? What signals can you send that say, “Don’t bother me?”
These steps are only the beginning. Each of these strategies can be built out and expanded upon. The next post will dive into deeper detail.
Remember, be patient with yourself as you start this process. These essential skills take time to cultivate and explore to find the strategies that help each of us stay effective in turbulent times.