Forget Time Management. Attention Management is What You Need.

We’ve been getting advice on how to be more efficient with our time since Dwight Eisenhower famously said “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

If you’re working from home, you’re working without some of the cues that keep you on task. Like the boss dropping by to ask how your project is coming along. That means time management is your own responsibility. So, you might need a refresher on how to stay on task.

Time Management vs. Attention Management

But not by “managing time,” says Maura Thomas, a productivity expert and author of Attention Management. She says trying to manage time is futile because we don’t control it.  “When we say time management, it gives us the illusion that we actually have control over time, when in fact we have none—time marches on no matter what you do,” she explains. 

Thomas says that no matter how disciplined you are, distractions will inevitably come up to interrupt your flow. Phone calls, emails, conversations and your own thoughts will all break up the time you set aside to focus… unless you learn how to control your attention.

She defines attention management as  “a collection of behaviors that give you the opportunity to recognize where your head is at, and [the ability] to shift to the brain state that is more relevant in the moment.” Note that “relevant” is not judgmental; there’s no use wasting more time beating yourself up for not staying focused.

Four Brain States

Thomas identifies brain states into four categories: 1) Reactive and Distracted, 2) Focused and Mindful, 3) Daydreaming or Mind Wandering, and 4) Flow. 

In the Reactive and Distracted state, you’re constantly reacting to and distracted by external noise (Ping! New email!) and even your internal state (“I’m starved. What should we make for dinner?”). You may be working, but you’re task shifting, moving your attention to whatever signals novelty. Not a very productive state.

Focused and Mindful means you’re working hard on concentrating. “You’re taking steps to ensure you’re not disturbed, you’re actively pushing out other thoughts that creep in, and you maintain your attention for an extended period of time on a more cognitively demanding task.” You’re focused on getting things done.

The Daydreaming state is a state of unfocused attention to your inner thoughts, letting your mind wander and make connections on its own.  You’ve blocked out outside distractions, but you’re not honing in on a specific task or train of thought. This is an underappreciated state of mind, one where creativity and problem solving happen best (despite what your parents and second grade teacher told you.) In fact, this state of mind is essential to really big ideas and important work. Thomas says, “We’ve come to the realization somehow that if we’re not doing, doing, doing, then we’re not being productive. But really, the exact opposite is true.”

Finally, there’s Flow, the psychological concept that was first recognized and named by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. This is effortless concentration, where you lose track of time, don’t notice distractions, and probably forget to eat. Flow is about total absorption in your task.

Turn It Off

If you’re trying to get to Focused and Mindful (or hoping for Flow), Thomas says it’s up to you to create a barrier between you and distractions. Turn off notifications, close apps and windows that mind steal your attention, and tell coworkers and family that you’re off limits for that time.

Set a time limit for uninterrupted work or a stopping point you identify in advance, such as finishing a chapter or editing the first half of a report. Then take a break – chances are it will be hard to maintain focus for more than 90 minutes or so at a time, anyway.

Electronic devices have been designed to capture our attention. Our brains have become accustomed to reacting to every signal we get. It will take practice to learn to focus your attention, Thomas says, but eventually, you get more used to extended periods of time without them and you start to build up your ability to stay focused for longer. 


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