How to Unlock Your Productivity with Attention Management

The same old productivity strategies don't work anymore. Here's what does—and how you can make the shift.

Attention management offers the path from distraction to flow.

You’re busy – probably by choice. You’re motivated and driven and you have a full life—all good things. But maybe you also wish it all could be a little less stressful, and more enjoyable. You’ve probably tried lots of tips, strategies and hacks to keep up.

Maybe they help for a time, but then, like most people, you fall back into the same old patterns. You struggle just to stay on top of daily demands, and moving the needle on your long-term goals just doesn’t happen often enough.

So why does a state of calm, purposeful productivity seem so elusive for most people?

You aren’t the problem.

The problem is the way you’ve been taught to think about productivity. The way we work has transformed dramatically in recent years. But the way we approach that work hasn’t changed.

Today I want to share a mental shift that will help you finally reclaim your scattered days and achieve true and sustainable productivity. You’ll be able to do your best work and live your best life. This technique is what I call attention management.

What Is Attention Management?

Attention management is the ability to recognize when your attention is being stolen (or has the potential to be stolen) and to instead keep it focused on the activities you choose. It’s about being intentional instead of reactive. You may have heard of being in “flow,” or being “in the zone.” This is a state of energized focus, and can even produce a feeling of spontaneous joy.

It’s true we can’t go through life in flow all the time, but most of us experience this so rarely, perhaps because it’s so rare for us to be free from distraction. We can’t will ourselves into flow, just by wanting it. But you can think of attention management as a range, with distraction at one end and flow at the other. Distraction prevents flow. So attention management is the path to flow.

Here are a few examples of what attention management might look like during the course of your workday:

· When your co-workers start a loud conversation, you put on headphones so you can stay deeply engaged in your work.

· If you’re feeling stressed or frazzled, you take a break by doing something you know will calm you (like meditating or physical activity) instead of automatically giving into the impulse to check social media, your favorite news site, or sports scores.

· You have one or more periods daily when you turn off email and other notifications so you can work without interruptions.

· You have most push notifications and alerts turned off. (Do you really need a “ping” to tell you that you have new mail? Let me end the suspense for you—you have new mail!)

· After work, you give your full attention to your family or leisure activities instead of constantly checking your phone for new emails.

Why We Need Attention Management

You’re probably used to thinking about productivity in terms of time and how to manage it. Indeed, most productivity advice still focuses on time management. But time management techniques were developed for a work world that was very different from the one we know now. Today, few people have an office with a door, and even behind the closed door, the world still beckons via the internet. The volume of communication and information has increased exponentially, and it’s served up to us constantly. Our devices mean that we don’t leave work behind at 5 p.m. anymore. It can find us anytime, anywhere. And then there’s the endless stream of information — from news alerts to Facebook updates — ready to steal our attention 24/7.

So the truth is, even if you set aside time to do something, the way that time passes matters—it’s a better experience with better results if you are focused instead of task-switching every few minutes. And so how you manage your time is only relevant to the extent that you also devote your attention.

With all these distractions, the idea of simply setting priorities and making appointments on your calendar to tackle them just isn’t viable today. Work moves too fast, and new demands on our time arrive constantly. So the primary productivity skill we need now is the ability to control our attention in this frantic, distraction-filled world.

The Benefits of Attention Management

Have you noticed that a lot of people seem to take pride in how crazy-busy they are? They flit from task to task all day, and they never seem to unplug. But their most important work often gets shoved to the back burner, and their overall work quality suffers. Even more importantly, the quality of their life suffers, because they are unable to stay present during conversations and experiences, and even if they do keep up, they are exhausted and stressed.

When you learn to master attention management, you’re taking a different path:

· You’ll do better work. Multitasking might make you feel productive. But research has shown that it actually makes your work take longer and results in lower quality.

· You’ll do more meaningful work. I’m betting that you were hired for your creativity, analytical skills, and insight, not your ability to answer emails quickly. When you manage your attention, you keep busy work from taking over your days.

· You’ll avoid burnout. Constantly reacting to work demands even when you’re away from the office just isn’t a sustainable way to live. It might sound counterintuitive, but to give your best to your job, you need times when your attention is totally removed from it. When you rest, have fun and enjoy family and friends, you can then bring more energy to your work.

How to Practice Attention Management

Are you ready to shift your approach to productivity and start harnessing the power of attention management? Here are a few strategies to get started:

· Take care of yourself. You’ll be better able to resist distractions and choose where to direct your attention when you get enough rest and you’re eating healthy foods.

· Control your technology. Turn off notifications and alerts from your email, apps and social media.

· Set some boundaries. Headphones are just one way to cope with an open office. You could also try a “do not disturb” sign on your desk, working from a quieter area of the office, or even working from home sometimes.

· Retrain your mind. If you’re used to multitasking, focusing on just one thing can make you feel antsy. Set a timer and do 10 minutes of focused work. Then work your way up to longer periods.

· Protect your free time. Remember, sometimes a break is the most productive thing you can do. Email counts as work, so resist the urge to check office communications after work hours and on vacation. (This is especially important if you’re the boss.)

You should start seeing the productivity payoffs of these practices immediately. But you’ll also notice something else: a greater sense of calm, control, and total wellbeing. That’s what makes attention management different: You’re not pushing yourself to produce more. You’re giving your mind what it needs to thrive.

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