To get the most out of your day, manage your attention not your time

shutterstock_174360617[Article first published in, 14th September 2015]

…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently.

Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize Laureate

From the Renaissance to 1900, human knowledge has doubled every century; by World War II, a doubling only took 25 years. In 2006, IBM estimated that by 2010 the world’s knowledge would double every 11 hours (pdf). All this information, and similar increases in communication, have created unprecedented challenges for our brains. Overwhelmed and distracted, days pass in a blur of frenetic and relatively mindless activity; relationships get crunched into snatched moments before the screens suck us back. Our most valuable and scarce resource is no longer time—it’s attention…

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Time management is only making our busy lives worse

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[This article was first published in]


“Tess…started her way up the dark and crooked lane not made for hasty progress; a street laid out before inches of land had value, and when one-handed clocks sufficiently sub-divided the day” (Thomas Hardy).

Imagine your life without time; without a constant sense that you’re running behind, frustrated that, yet again you are losing the battle against the irresistible force of the ticking clock. Imagine not wishing there were more hours in the day.

We haven’t always been obsessed with time. In fact, as the historian EP Thompson highlighted half a century ago, before the Industrial Revolution clocks were largely irrelevant. Instead of a time orientation, people had a task orientation. They had jobs to do, and so they did them in the natural order, at the natural time. This worked for a largely agricultural society. However, the factories of the Industrial Revolution needed to coordinate hundreds of people, to get them working at the same time, in synchronicity; and that required clocks. So business leaders imposed clock time on their workforce (not without resistance); and eminent leaders, such as Benjamin Franklin, reinforced the value of this with statements such as ‘time is money’. Continue reading…

Email is the TV of work

Watch emailIt can feel good to flop in front of the TV at the end of a busy day. With a simple click you are transported and entertained. You can switch off your brain. The same is true at work. It feels good to flop in front of your screen and with a click disappear into your messages. As you plug into your inbox, you can switch off and pass the time away. All your replies, CCs and emoticons are a welcome distraction from real thinking. Email isn’t work; it’s light entertainment. Continue reading…

Creating moments with your children

How often do you say ‘Just a minute’ to your children?  My wife and I found ourselves saying it a lot, as we prioritized our terribly important busyness over our children. More often than not, by the time we were ready, the child had disappeared, or moved on and the moment was lost. A little while ago, I came down from the office and my 5 year old daughter asked me to dance.  I was, of course, busy. This time I resisted saying ‘Just a minute’ and said ‘Okay’.  We danced, and laughed for about 30 seconds.  Then, completely satisfied, she skipped off onto something else. Continue reading…

Sloppiness is a gender issue

shutterstock_107137112 - CopyI work with a leader who is sloppy: a bit disorganized, he forgets things and at times drops the ball. He is also extremely successful and admired. The thing is, his sloppiness is interpreted (accurately) as big thinking and creativity. It occurs to me that I don’t know any women in senior positions who are also sloppy and successful; that bothers me. Continue reading…

Strategic Idleness

shutterstock_134514503 - CopyIn a recent survey in the US, 83% of people said they had no time for ‘relaxation or thinking’ at all. In a knowledge economy, what hope can we have as individuals or as corporations if we’re not thinking. More specifically, there’s a type of thinking that is more under threat than any other kind: the thinking that happens when we’re relaxed or idle. Martin Heidegger made the distinction between calculative and meditative thinking. Calculative thinking is focused, activity-driven and outcome-oriented; meditative thinking is more relaxed, internal and expansive. When we’re busy, we employ calculative thinking. When we’re consuming reality TV or YouTube videos of dancing cats, we’re not really thinking at all. Meditative thinking only happens when we are neither producing nor consuming; in other words, when we are idle. My concern is that the twin drives to produce and consume are squeezing idleness out of our lives; and idleness is important because it is the origin of meditative thinking.

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