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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.

Given that attention management is at the foundation of my speaking, training, and writing on my approach to productivity, I felt a more complete definition was warranted.

The simple definition of attention management is “the practice of controlling your attention.” But what exactly does that mean?

Psychologist and philosopherWilliam James was on to the ideas behind attention management back in the 19thcentury:

[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.

The key word there is “one.” You can’t give your attention simultaneously to all of the things that demand it. Attention management allows you to be more proactive than reactive. It means youdecide where your attention goes instead of letting outside demands decide it for you. 

Attention management is the ability to maintain control over your thoughts and actions, rather than inadvertently relinquishing it, and it’s your defense against the damage our fast-paced, technology-rich, always-on environment does to our mind, body, and soul. It’s also essential for living a life of choice, rather than a life of reaction and distraction.

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, titled Attention Management: Breaking the Time Management Myth for Unrivaled Productivity. 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.

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