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How to manage your attention

Written 23 July, 2019, 6 minutes to read

Most people looking to increase their productivity focus in on time management: if only they could manage time better, they’d get more work done, do more exercise, spend more time with the family, maybe finally start that novel. But time alone isn’t the only thing we need to manage. Attention is arguably the key to our productive potential, and understanding it, protecting it, and learning how to take advantage of it is what will ultimately help us produce our best work in less time. Here’s how to manage your attention to ultimately get more from your time.

Time vs attention

If you want to be more productive, your focus should largely be on your attention, not your time. There are a limited number of hours in the day, so you need to organize yourself better within those boundaries. The problem isn’t the amount of hours available per se, it’s how you end up using them. We can’t control time itself, but we can control what we do with it – and that largely depends on how spend our attention.

Attention, like time, is limited. Think of it as a precious resource; you only have so much of it, so you need to be careful not to waste it. We squander the productive potential of our attention whenever we turn it towards meaningless tasks and idle distractions. But by learning to budget our attention and distribute it effectively, we can make serious productive gains. “Prioritize the people and projects that matter,” organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote in The New York Times, “and it won’t matter how long anything takes.”

Be responsible for your focus

The first step to managing your attention is becoming aware of where you focus it. Most people maintain a continuous partial attention throughout the day, hopping from task to task and managing several things without being truly engaged in any one of them. People often think multitasking makes them more productive, but the opposite is true. Whenever you break your concentration – such as switching from one task to another – it takes time to properly refocus; almost 30 minutes each time, according to research.

Just as context switching drains on your attention, practicing undivided attention produces your best results. It’s the premise behind the popular “deep work” philosophy, that pushes people to work in 90-minute strentches of distraction-free concentration to push their cognitive capabilities to the limit. It’s the intense kind of concentration you experience when you’re super into something – only applied consciously to as many aspects of your working day as possible. In this case, our attention becomes something we are direclty accountable for – we need to actively use it “well”.

Get an automatic picture of your day to see how you spend your attention

Control your connectivity

But constant connectivity often holds our efforts back. When you consider how much productive, meaningful work you actually do in a day, it may only amount to an hour or so. You may think it’s more, but when you really examine your time, you’ll quickly realize how saturated it is with distraction and interruption. With a constant flow of alerts streaming in, just 10 minutes of deep work can seem elusive. A Slack comment here, a “small request” there, countless emails to reply to; our attention is often sidetracked by a series of passive interactions.

A huge problem lies with the fact that we often aren’t intentional in the way we use our tech. Tech offers huge opportunities to aid our productivity, but many of our tools actually derail our attention on a daily basis. Your attention is an economy which the world’s biggest companies are battling to dominate, and so we see the use of aggressive tactics to trap it. Auto-play videos, constantly-updating social feeds, invasive push notifications and dopamine-triggering interactions all feed into a model of passive consumption. In allowing this relationship with our tech to continue, we risk losing the ability to pay attention on purpose – to be present, self-aware, and focused – and ultimately actively steer our attention towards its best use.

How healthy is your relationship with tech?

Top tips for managing your attention

Now it’s time for some good news! There’s a lot you can do to take back control of your attention and use it in a way that’s productive and intentional. Some of the smallest things that have the biggest impact on managing your attention include:

1. Tracking your attention

To better manage your attention, you need to understand how it is actually spent – from quantifying meaningful time, to identifying the unconscious tasks and behaviors that disrupt you. Smart automatic time trackers like Timely are essential productive aids for this – they track the time you spend in work apps, websites, and even GPS locations so you can see exactly how your day pans out. But they can also help structure your attention intelligently. Plan your workday ahead, use automatic tracking to see what you end up doing, and learn from those insights to improve your performance. You can’t become more accountable for your attention without being conscious of how you use it in the first place.

2. Removing distractions

Rather than having to deal with a constant onslaught of distractions and interruptions, defend your attention by taking proactive precautions yourself. If you get tempted to read news stories or scroll through Twitter, set URL restrictions so you can’t visit those sites. Look at your phone and assess which apps you truly need; delete the ones that aren’t adding to your life, and change your notification settings so you’re not constantly pinged throughout the day. If you need to use certain apps for work, like Slack or email, set availability hours – times when your colleagues know they’ll be able to reach you. You need to create the conditions for deep, uninterrupted work, so actively decide when to let notifications in. Check out this infographic for more tips on how to keep your relationship with tech healthy.

3. Learning to prioritize

Motivation is crucial to managing your attention, but it’s not always easy to come by. Having a clear idea of which tasks are genuinely important to you can be a huge help in forming the impetus to actually do them. Figure out which tasks will actually help you accomplish your goals, and put them first. Knowing something’s critical to our own success can help us stay focused. Apply the “Eisenhower Principle” to understand which tasks are important and which are urgent. It can be difficult to ignore the impulse to get urgent tasks done, since they demand immediate attention, but unlike important tasks, they are often inconsequential and revolve around accomplishing someone else's goals. Your attention is limited, so always put what’s important for you first.

Want to know you you spend your attention? Try automatic time tracking free to find out

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