If you know anything about my work, you’ve probably been introduced to the idea of attention management by now. The phrase existed before I began using it, but not in relation to productivity, and not in a way that was particularly relevant or useful to our everyday lives.
The simple definition of attention management is “the practice of controlling your attention.” But what exactly does that mean? Let’s break down each component. You probably understand the concept of management, but for clarity, the relevant definition from the New Oxford American Dictionary is “the responsibility for and control of” something.
Attention is described in many ways, but my favorite definition comes from William James in Principles of Psychology, Volume 1, who wrote in 1890:
[Attention] is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.
Encyclopedia Brittanica offers more clarity, including a crucial qualifier:
Attention…may be understood as a condition of selective awareness which governs the extent and quality of one’s interactions with one’s environment. A person cannot consciously experience all the events and information available at any one time.
These comments not only define attention, but also indicate the limitations of our capacity for it, and therefore suggest why it’s important to be able to control (manage) it.
These concepts together offer a definition, which I’ll summarize as, “the control of our ability for selective awareness of how we interact with our environment.”
For a more practical understanding,
I suggest you think of attention management as the collective practice of a group of behaviors, including focus, concentration, mindfulness, presence, and flow, and more than any one of them individually. Attention management offers the ability to consciously direct your attention in any given moment despite distractions, to be more proactive than reactive, and to maintain control over your thoughts, rather than inadvertently relinquishing control. In the face of the concerted efforts in our environment to steal our attention, attention management is the antidote, and your defense against the negative consequences of our fast-paced, technology-rich, always-on environment.
The image above is a visual summary of the components of attention management and the opportunities it offers.
More input from William James, who offers this simple statement that’s packed with meaning: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”
Your attention determines the experiences you have, and the experiences you have determine the life you live. Or said another way: you must control your attention to control your life. Since productivity is fundamentally about directing your activities to do more of the things that are important to you, attention management is the logical path to get you there.
I wrote more about my definition of attention management, and why I believe that you must control your attention to control your life, in an article for the Harvard Business Review: To Control Your Life, Control What You Pay Attention To. For more on how attention management relates to productivity (and specifically, Empowered ProductivityTM) visit this page.
Attention management is a practice that you’ll improve over time, but even then, some days will be better than others. Our ability to manage our attention depends on our physiology as well as our skill level. On days when your sleep, nutrition, and hydration are less than optimal, so too will be your ability to manage your attention.
This article is an excerpt from my upcoming book on attention management. To receive future excerpts, be alerted when the book is published, or receive an advance copy in exchange for a review, add your email address below.