It’s often thought that good ‘time management’ is the key to productivity, success and happiness – but somewhere along the line, the game changed.
We now live in an age of constant connection and information overload with inputs that would have been staggering to comprehend even ten years ago: 24/7 email, social media, voicemails, instant messenger, texts, intranets, conference calls, collaboration tools and the burden of staying connected.
So, there’s a new game now, with completely new rules.
Put simply, skillful attention management is the new key to being a productivity ninja.
WHAT DOES ‘ATTENTION’ REALLY MEAN?
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.
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.
LEVELS OF ATTENTION
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 focused, 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.
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.
You will have your own ideas about when your attention spans are at their peak.
Maybe you’re not much of a morning person: it takes you a while to get any momentum going. Perhaps you pick up mid-morning, have a slump after lunch and pick up again towards the end of the day.
The key is scheduling your work according to the attention level you’re operating on.
SMART USE OF YOUR ATTENTION LEVELS
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 realize 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, though in that moment it probably feels no different to when you change the printer cartridge at any other time.
It’s also 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.
While 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.
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.
This is the third article in a continuing series about how to be a productivity ninja. (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8)