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Forget time management: It's all about attention management

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20th Nov 2013
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Productivity ninja Graham Allcott says it's time to manage your attention span not your...look! An albino pigeon!

Your attention is a more limited resource than your time. Have you ever got to the end of a day when you’ve still got loads to do, you’re still motivated to do it and you have all the tools or information that you need, yet find that you’re just staring into space? Under those circumstances, you’ll often tell yourself you ran out of time, but actually you just ran out of attention to give.

On other days, you might feel as if you’ve been in back-to-back meetings all day, and it’s 4pm before you even have a chance to get any desk time in, to finally look at emails, catch up on your reading and planning, and seize control. On these days, you might really feel that you’re short on time. Wrong.

Your attention is a currency to be spent, and if you choose to give away as much as 80% of your attention to meetings, don’t be surprised if that final 20% of your attention amounts to little more than dealing with a few emails, followed by time spent staring into space and feeling overwhelmed. But don’t fool yourself that it was anyone else’s fault – if you start to think about the time spent in meetings not just in terms of the time you lose, but also in terms of the attention and energy expended, you soon realise that complex and difficult meetings are a massive drain on your personal resources.

In an average day, you will have different levels of attention. For ease, a crude analysis might highlight three different types of attention:

  • Proactive attention - This is where you are fully focussed, alert, in the zone and ready to make your most important decisions or tackle your most complex tasks. This level of attention is extremely valuable and reading this my hope is that you realise just how valuable it really is.

  • Active attention - This is where you’re plugged in, ticking along, but perhaps flagging slightly. You’re easily distracted, occasionally brilliant, but often sloppy too. This level of attention is useful.

  • Inactive attention - The lights are on but no one appears to be home. There’s not too much brainpower left and you’re likely to really struggle with complex or difficult tasks. Your attention here isn’t worthless, but its value is limited.

Of course, these are crude and artificial demarcations, but useful ones to think about when trying to maximise your productivity through good attention management. I have spent the last few years watching my attention management trends and flows and talking to others about their own patterns, too.

Schedule your work based on your attention level

Every job will have within it a range of tasks. These will often range from making huge decisions about what to do and when to do it, through to updating contact information, filing things away or changing the printer cartridge. Once you start to focus on your attention levels, you’ll start to realise that it’s a criminal waste to be changing the printer cartridge during a period of proactive attention. It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, although in that moment it probably feels no different to when you change the printer cartridge at any other time.

Yes, attention management is certainly a subtle game. It’s worth thinking about your natural strengths and weaknesses here. Save tasks that you find particularly difficult for when your attention level is proactive, leave the intense-but-easier stuff for those active attention times and try to save up the easy or dull stuff for when you’re capable of little else.

Your proactive attention is in short supply: Use it wisely

Whilst there will be patterns to your proactive attention, it changes from day to day and sometimes from minute to minute. Therefore, to be able to schedule or select your work appropriately to your attention level, you need to have all possible options available to you so that you’re always free to make informed choices from a position of confident, Zen-like calm. Defining the best ways to achieve your tasks needs to be done when you have the proactive attention available. Finishing this thinking is what gives you the best possible range of options to choose from and the best possible information to support your decisions about what different periods of attention can handle. Being caught in a period of inactive or active attention and not having a clue about all the possibilities of what’s out there to do next very quickly leads to a lack of clarity, stress, procrastination and bad decisions.

Prioritising your proactive attention towards the thinking parts of your work rather than the doing should be a key goal. Whilst it sounds easy, think about your own periods of proactive attention and then think about what’s going on around you during those times in the working day. 9-11am is good proactive time for me. That’s also exactly the time that my colleagues want a piece of my time, that the majority of the day’s emails and calls are flying in, exactly the time I’m having a million ideas that I want to investigate, have had appointments made for me, and so on. You need to be a pretty focussed, firm and ruthless boss to make the most of this time. I regularly spend the mornings working away from the office for this very reason; I want to protect the proactive attention for my best work, and save my active and inactive attention for the parts of my job that don’t need the fullest of energy or engagement.

Graham Allcott is the author of How to be a Productivity Ninja and founder of Think Productive, a UK based company offering in-house productivity training
 

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