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

By Mastery5 min read
[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.

This article is aimed at those of us who have felt the path to achievement is to maximize our time. It outlines a few of the simple shifts you can make to manage your attention instead. After all, it’s an attention economy.


From whether or not to which

Tim Cook described Apple as the most focused company in the world. Every day, it says no to great ideas in order to put enormous energy behind those it chooses to focus on. This is the essence of strategy: making tough decisions so you can focus attention on what matters. Psychologically, that’s hard because we ask the wrong question. To illustrate this I’ll explain why I don’t like buffets. I find myself asking whether or not I want chicken korma, sweet and sour pork, steak pie, etc. Since I like all these foods, the answer is nearly always “yes,” and I end up with an over-full plate. The same happens with the demands for our attention: we ask whether or not we should answer email, or attend that meeting. Since nearly everything in work has a value, the answer will always be “yes.” So we end up with over-crammed days and stretched attention.

The question we should be asking, as Chip and Dan Heath suggest, is which? Which would I prefer, korma or pie? Which activity would be the best use of my attention? However, which is a harder question than whether or not. Research into decision-making shows the brain quickly gets tired—or ego depleted. When tired, it tends to make the easy choice, which in this case is replacing the tough which choice with whether or not. If you start your day with email and respond to messages, you are ego-depleting yourself, which can lead the tired mind to graze on whatever appears in front of it, saying yes to everything (and therefore achieving nothing). Use your brain’s freshness. Before you allow the flotsam and jetsam of daily office life to batter your brain cells into submission, prioritize. Decide which activities will be the most valuable use of your attention that day, and then do them.


From to-do lists to brain dumps

You could also get rid of your to-do list. If you think about the purpose of a to-do list, it’s a place to capture all the stuff you might forget because it isn’t important. People seldom write their biggest priorities on a to-do list. The very act of keeping a to-do list encourages you to fritter your attention away on inconsequential things. I would never include “Write a book” or “Spend time with the children” on my list. I prefer to focus on the things that matter using the strategy of US Army General Rhonda Cornum: “Prioritize. A. B. C. Discard C.” Your list of priorities should be very short. In fact, according to Greg McKeown, the very word priority was a purely singular word until the early 1900s.

However, from a pure attention perspective, to-do lists serve a useful purpose: they allow you to get things out of your head. The brain is pretty bad at doing more than one thing at a time. In fact, multi-tasking can reduce the ability of a Harvard MBA to that of an 8-year-old. Trying to remember things you should do consumes valuable processing power. David Allen suggests a useful alternative here that I call brain dumps. A brain dump is a notebook or phone you always have with you. Whenever you have an idea, task or concern on your mind, capture it in your brain dump. This delegates the process of remembering to your dump and frees your attention up for the job at hand. At times of your choosing, daily or weekly, check your dump. Most items you’ll delete, some you’ll actually do, but it shouldn’t drive your daily activity. That is driven by your core priorities, which you won’t forget.


From switch to stick

We feel powerful as we switch between activities, responding in real-time, and rewarded with dopamine. Yet this switching increases the overall time taken to complete the tasks by 40%, due to something David Meyer calls the task-switching cost. The implication is that we increase our effectiveness when we keep our attention on a single task for longer. I call this big chunking: breaking your day into great big chunks of undisturbed attention (as compared to every three minutes, which appears to be the average in most offices). To do this, turn off your distractions. The temptation of an email notifier, or the ring of the phone, is harder to resist than sex and chocolate. Even if you do resist it, just having heard that notifier sucks some of your attention away, reducing performance. Don’t try and resist it; avoid it. Those with exceptionally strong willpower are no better at resisting chocolate cake when it’s in front of them. However, they are much better at making sure chocolate cake never gets in their fridge. The best way to resist the temptation of distraction is to create habits, which help you to avoid them, the simplest of which is reaching for the off switch.


From external to internal

I’m with T.E. Lawrence when he said “Mankind had been no gainer by its drudges.” As we’ve scurried between inbox, calendar and to-do list, the rising tides of information have washed our attention away. We’re left with knowledge workers who don’t think and partners who aren’t present. Unless we can learn to become the masters of our attention, we will fail to escape the drudgery of a world of too much.

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