This post was updated September 20, 2021
You’ve probably been introduced to the idea of attention management before now. The phrase existed before I began using it.
At that time, however, it was not used in relation to productivity. It was not used in a way that was relevant or important to our everyday lives. And it was not used as a skill for teaching us how to stay focused at work.
As our technology advances and distractions increase, I have adopted the concept of attention management in my work in productivity, and created a definition that suits this purpose.
My simple definition of attention management is “the practice of controlling your attention.” But what exactly does that mean? And how can attention management help us stay focused at work?
Attention Management Requires a Single Focus
Attention management is the most essential productivity skill of the 21st century. But the famous psychologist and philosopher William James was onto the ideas behind attention management way back in the 1800s:
[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 here is “one.” You can’t give your attention to all of the things that demand it in a single moment.
Why Attention Management Is Important
Attention management allows us to be more proactive than reactive. When we manage our attention, we decide where our attention goes. We don’t let outside demands decide for us. It allows us to live lives of choice rather than reaction and distraction.
Deciding where our attention goes is our defense against the damage our always-on environment does to our mind, body and soul.
There’s always been more information out there than any of us could process. But the big change today is that this information is no longer passive. Instead, it actively demands our attention through alerts.
Today, with the Internet and mobile devices, it often seems impossible to keep our focus on one thing at a time. The online world has transformed our lives in the past 25 years. Now via our internet-connected smartphones, we carry the world in our pockets in a way that we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago.
On top of that, technology brings together spheres of our lives that used to be separate. It seems we are constantly reacting to buzzes, beeps and pings.
Distractions are everywhere, all the time.
The Cost of Task Switching
Work follows us home, and our personal lives also follow us to the office. Activities that once happened in different “places”—like reading, watching tv and movies, socializing with friends, working, and playing games—now converge in the same devices.
Because of technology, it’s easy to let other things decide where our attention goes and constantly shift focus. In fact, researchers have analyzed the cost of task switching, since studies show we switch our attention every 3 minutes, 5 seconds on average.
And consider this: About half the time, we are actually interrupting ourselves! We’re so used to being distracted that distraction has become a habit. Even when there is no distraction, we distract ourselves by expecting one!
It’s hard to accomplish anything meaningful and unleash our genius in about the time it takes to toast bread. No wonder distraction leaves us unproductive and demoralized.
If there was ever a time when we need to practice attention management, it’s now.
Attention Management Is More Fluid Than Time Management
Time Management strategies are well-worn formulas for what we should do day in, day out at work.
It wasn’t so long ago when time management strategies actually did help us. These strategies enabled us to get a handle on our workloads and get more done.
We could start every morning making a list of important tasks to do that day. We could decide our A, B and C priorities and feel confident we could address them all. If we got behind, we could always close our office doors so we could really focus.
But as the nature of work changed, time management strategies didn’t.
These days, if we still make a list every morning, it probably becomes obsolete as soon as we check our mail. We’re bombarded with messages, and they all seem urgent. That makes it harder to spend our time according to your true priorities. And who even has an office door to close and shut out distractions these days?
If you’ve ever felt frustrated trying to figure out how to stay focused at work, this is probably why. Time management strategies are the only productivity tools we’ve ever been given. But they just aren’t up to the task anymore.
Attention Management is Flexible for the Modern Day
We need a new toolkit to help us stay focused in the modern workplace. And this is where attention management comes in.
The practice of attention management is built for today’s open floor plan, tech-centric, always-on work. It enables us to adapt to what’s going on. It allows us to incorporate our priorities on a particular day or in a particular moment. And it offers the opportunity to engage the most optimal brain state to achieve the best results in the moment.
For example, sometimes managing our attention means giving ourselves time for focused work. At other times, it means making sure we are fully present for others. And sometimes it even means not paying attention to work at all. On a lunch break, vacation, evenings, and weekends, we need to give our brains time to recharge.
Attention Management Is a Collection of Behaviors
Think of attention management as the collective practice of a group of behaviors, including:
As we practice this set of skills over time, we are more able to focus on what we want to accomplish. We increase our productivity. Read my post 10 Strategies to Improve Focus in the Workplace to start strengthening your attention management muscle right away.
My Attention Management Model
To determine how to best manage your attention at any given time, you can use my attention management model.
These are the four quadrants in the model:
- Reactive and distracted — Multitasking. Most people’s typical state at work.
- Daydreaming — Mind wandering. Restorative for your brain.
- Flow — So absorbed you lose track of time. Well known from the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, but isn’t something we can control. Requires time in the fourth quadrant:
- Focused and mindful — Fully present and making an effort to maintain focus.
Here’s how to use the quadrants to improve your productivity:
- Recognize the quadrant you are in. For example, let’s say you’ve been bouncing between emails, texts and drop-by visits all morning. You realize that you’re in the reactive and distracted quadrant.
- Figure out the quadrant you want to be in. In our example, you’ve lost focus on the important report you need to complete because you’re too distracted. The report is the kind of work you do best, but it also requires deep thought. So you decide you need to move into focused and mindful, hopefully achieving flow.
- Make shifts to move to your desired quadrant. To set the stage for flow, you can take small steps to adjust the environment. For example, put white noise in your headphones if you work in an open office. For an additional boost, you can also limit interruptions by switching off your phone and logging out of your email.
Why Is Attention Management Important for Teams?
When your whole team understands attention management, it’s easier to agree on policies around communication, vacation, and work-life balance. If your entire team is trained to use a workflow management system based in attention management, you will often experience exponential increase in team productivity. This is because when a whole team operates from the same playbook, it’s easier to empower each other’s productivity to achieve significant individual and team results.
Can Help You and Your Team
Empowered Productivity is the workflow management system I’ve developed and refined over decades of work with thousands of clients. This unique system is based on the principles of attention management and it’s designed to help your team achieve its most significant results with less stress and more fulfillment.
When you learn to use this workflow management system, you’ll develop a collection of habits and behaviors that will help put you back in the driver’s seat of your work and life! You’ll feel less frazzled and overwhelmed, and more rested and productive.
Individuals can take my self-paced, video-based Empowered Productivity course. You’ll get access to online support and a comprehensive workbook that will reinforce concepts and ensure you get the most out of your investment.
Teams can sign up for live or virtual training. Contact me if you’re interested in team training. (Alternatively, each member of the team can enroll in the online video-based course.)
You can read reviews from my Empowered Productivity courses. One executive participant said:
“Switching my thinking from ‘time management’ to ‘attention management’ was a game-changer.”
Your Next Steps With Attention Management
Attention management is at the heart of everything I teach as a productivity trainer and speaker. My mission is helping busy professionals like you leave behind outmoded time management strategies. I want to help you use attention management to learn how to stay focused and work.
Follow the links for free excerpts of each of my three books:
- “Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity Every Day” – best as an introduction to Attention Management, and how and why to begin your practice.
- “Personal Productivity Secrets” – best to learn a workflow management system to manage internal distractions (like running down your to-do list in your head all day, trying not to forget anything).
- “Work Without Walls: An Executive’s Guide to Attention Management, Productivity, and the Future of Work” – best for managers and leaders who want to create an environment where their team can do their best work.
Follow the links above to learn more, or contact me for a consultation.