The four quadrants of attention management is a model to help you maximize your daily productivity and reduce burnout. To understand this framework, you need to train your mind to become aware of itself. So let’s pause right here and take a moment to answer a few questions:
- Where was your attention during your last meeting?
- Or when you needed to work on that important project yesterday?
- Or when you were standing in line to order lunch?
Attention management is the most reliable path to productivity in the 21st century. My work as a trainer, researcher and speaker on productivity led me to this conclusion. I’ve seen that when my clients learn to manage their attention, they achieve more of the results that are most significant to them.
The Four Quadrants of Attention Management
For so long we’ve learned to focus on how we manage our time, so this new approach can be a radical switch for some people. To help you make the mental shift to attention management, I’ve created a model that uses four quadrants.
The four quadrants of attention management are based on the amount of control you exert over your attention. Each quadrant explains the state of your attention produced by that effort. I discuss the four quadrants of attention management in more detail in my book, Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity—Every Day.
Attention management is the practice of intentionally engaging the most optimal brain state to achieve the best results in the moment. Learning attention management gives you the ability to:
- Recognize which quadrant will best serve you in which situation.
- Understand which quadrant you’re in at any given moment.
- Make intentional shifts throughout the day into the most appropriate quadrant as the situation requires.
Quadrant 1: Reactive and Distracted
If you find yourself exerting little or no control over your attention, you are in the quadrant that I call “Reactive and Distracted.” In this quadrant, you are scattered and reacting to both internal and external stimuli. Also, as interruptions bombard you, you are switching your attention from task to task every few minutes.
When your attention becomes fractured in this way, you may not realize just how scattered you are. You may not be aware of how much this undermines your ability to do your best work in the most efficient manner. Too much time in the Reactive and Distracted Quandrant leads to days that feel busy but are tiring and unfulfilling. If you’re like the majority of my clients, this state dominates your workdays.
Picture a time when you are working on some task—let’s say a spreadsheet—and notification of a new email or text catches your attention. You shift to see what it is and who it’s from. If you determine that you can handle it quickly, you begin to address it. Here’s what’s likely to happen next:
- Someone drops by your desk and asks, “Got a minute?”
- That conversation leads you to open your browser to a web page.
- Once your colleague leaves, you turn back to the web page.
- Then you find yourself clicking on a link to a related article or video.
- Your calendar alerts you that it’s time to leave for a meeting.
- When you come back from the meeting, you see that you’ve received three new emails.
- You open the first one, realize you need to think about it, and then open the next one.
At this point, you have several browser windows open. You’ve started several email responses but haven’t finished any of them. Plus that spreadsheet you began hours ago is still woefully incomplete.
Does this scenario sound like your typical day? This manner of work makes it difficult for you to give your full attention to anything for more than a few minutes. Every new email, every ping of your device, and every coworker who walks by your desk steals your attention. The results is that this constant distraction becomes a habit. You get used to getting distracted every few minutes, and all day long the habit is reinforced. You become so accustomed to getting distracted that it chips away at your attention span, and activities that require you to focus for more than a few minutes start to feel impossible.
Once you leave work for the day, it’s hard to break the habit of responding to distractions. Even without the work interruptions, you end up distracting yourself. How? You engage with your device every few minutes. In 2016, Apple reported that iPhone users unlocked their phones 80 times per day! My experience leads me to believe that number has increased significantly in the years since.
Quadrant 2: Daydreaming
Daydreaming used to happen in the “in-between” moments. When you walked from your office to your car, rode an elevator, or waited in line, you were able to relax your mind. The Daydreaming Quadrant requires a similar state of mind. You know that you are in this quadrant when you’re unfocused and aren’t distracted by lots of stimuli.
Before smartphones, we had many of these in-between moments throughout our day. But these days, they’ve been almost completely eliminated. Now, during any pause of activity, we are conditioned to reach for our phones. That’s why I view this quadrant as “low attention” but “high control.” These days quiet moments without our smartphones feel boring, unproductive and like we aren’t “doing” anything.
Yet this is a misconception and a damaging habit. Sure it’s hard to resist pulling out our devices in these situations. But our minds need to wander to generate insights and “aha!” moments. If you’ve ever had a great idea in the shower, you understand the benefits of this quadrant of attention! This is why attention management doesn’t just mean “focusing” on something. It also means giving your brain the restorative, unfocused opportunity that it needs to reflect, process, and consolidate information.
Quadrant 3: Focused and Mindful
The third quadrant is one that many people wish they could move to more often. It’s the “Focused and Mindful Quadrant” and getting there requires real effort. We all have times when we want to focus. At these times, we need to direct our attention to a single task or activity for an extended period of time. This quadrant necessitates an environment free from distraction.
Go ahead and take the steps required to in this quadrant:
- Close your office door if you have one.
- Put on noise-canceling headphones if you don’t have an office door.
- Give your co-workers a clear signal that you prefer not to be interrupted.
- Then silence, turn off or put away your communication and information apps/devices/software that you aren’t using.
This is difficult. We’re so used to distractions that we tend to get antsy when we don’t have them! When we need to focus and think deeply, often we don’t really want to anymore. Deep focus is contrary to our current habits, and we’ve become rather bad at it.
But it is possible to retrain your brain. One way is by cultivating mindfulness. That could mean regularly meditating. Or it could simply mean building the habit of centering yourself in the present moment and calling attention to your physical state. Doing this regularly helps rebuild your attention span and makes it easier to focus. You’ll be better able to recognize when you’ve become distracted and more easily able to refocus on the task at hand.
Quadrant 4: Flow
The last of the four quadrants of attention management is the Flow Quadrant, and you may already be familiar with it. Flow has become one of the most fascinating and influential ideas in business thanks to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian–American psychologist.
Csikszentmihalyi and others describe flow as a state of heightened focus and immersion. In this state, you become so engrossed in your work or other activity, that time seems to fly. In the end, you feel a sense of satisfaction—like you have really accomplished something. The flow state illustrates that demanding tasks don’t have to be “hard” or unpleasant.
You can’t just decide to enter the Flow Quadrant at will. But if the conditions are right, and if you intentionally focus for long enough, you might tip over into flow. It happens when a specific part of the brain disengages and your sense of self falls away. Control isn’t necessary, because when you enter flow, focusing becomes effortless. You are fully attentive and absorbed in the task at hand. And unlike the other quadrants, flow isn’t a behavior; it’s a state your brain enters on its own when the right conditions are present.
Use the Four Quadrants of Attention Management to Live a Life of Choice
Attention management involves shifting from one quadrant to another as needed. You need to know what level of attention and control a given task, moment, or experience requires. To begin increasing your ability to manage your attention, consider how much time you spend in each quadrant on a given day, and how well this percentage split serves you. Your answers may depend on the nature of your work and your priorities for your life.
No matter what the right mix is for you, the practice of attention management and an awareness of these four quadrants can help you regain control over your attention, be more present in your experiences, and fully “unleash your genius.” And most rewarding, you’ll be able to live a life of choice, rather than a life of reaction and distraction.