March 21, 2022

Traditionally, good time management is a hallmark of success in the workplace. While most of us try to stay on top of our calendar, there will inevitably be times when unexpected elements are thrown into the mix—which can affect our ability to be creative, productive and solve problems. Instead of managing time, what if we manage our attention?

According to psychologist Adam Grant, attention management is “the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments.” Award-winning speaker and productivity guru Maura Thomas offers another definition: “the ability to consciously direct your attention in any given moment, to be more proactive than reactive, and to maintain control rather than inadvertently relinquish it.” In short, controlling your distractions will allow you to be more productive in the long run. Here are four reasons why attention management is more useful in helping you conquer your workday.

It helps us focus on the end goal

Typically, you start each day with a certain intention and goal, but what if pressing demands derail them? Attention management is a deliberate approach that gives you more control over your life, while time management takes away our autonomy because we are chained by an inflexible schedule. We have a fixed time to complete each of our tasks like replying to emails, writing a proposal or doing administrative work. We try to predict how long a task will take, but more often than not, it may take longer. By sticking to the original plan, our day gets thrown off. The result? We rush to complete our entire list of tasks, compromising on quality. Worse still, we become so fixated on following the schedule that we forget our end goal.

What you should do is work on completing the most important tasks first before fatigue sets in. Decide which takes priority as we have a limited amount of cognitive bandwidth. 

It helps us to manage distractions

Good time management is critical, but it shouldn’t be the only thing anchoring our productivity. In a modern world, checklists are becoming increasingly irrelevant since we are constantly bombarded with tasks, making it harder to identify our true priorities. With distractions lurking in every corner, attention management has become an excellent strategy to help us stay focused. It allows us to adapt easily to changing circumstances and new conditions as well as accept that distractions are a natural part of any process. Rather than trying to block out these disturbances, monitor your distraction pattern and sources. This can help you catch on to what causes your mind to wander. Identifying your key distractions gives you greater awareness and spurs you to consciously remove yourself from an unproductive environment. Choose where you direct your attention based on an understanding of your priorities and goals.

It makes us more productive

“As long as we phrase our path to productivity in terms of managing time, we’re always going to be behind the eight ball,” says Thomas. Productivity is not about trying to be more efficient but understanding the underlying motivation for every task. If you are genuinely interested in (and know) what you are doing, you will naturally be able to complete your undertakings more effortlessly. When we are able to find a personal connection to the task, we will be able to give our best effort and attention. Scientific research has proven that humans are bad at multitasking. When we work on two tasks simultaneously, we are actually shifting our attention from each without really focusing on either. During such shifts, it is harder to shut out distractions that hinder productivity.

According to a University of California Irvine study, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task after we get distracted. And when you turn your attention from the secondary task back to the primary task, the secondary task is left unfinished. The attention residue left by such inconclusive switches undermines your performance. So stop multitasking and focus on one thing at a time. This helps you to reserve your energy to be more productive.

It allows us to be in a state of flow

Flow is a state of being completely absorbed in an activity or regarded as an optimal performance state where we feel and perform our best. A study by Harvard found subjects to have three days of heightened creativity after achieving flow. Another study by McKinsey highlighted a 500 per cent increase in productivity by executives who regularly accessed flow states. Being “in the zone” can also establish greater personal satisfaction in your work. Time management works against flow by dictating how much time should be spent on certain projects. For example, if you give yourself strictly one hour to finish an assignment, it might be over even before you get into the momentum. Attention management gives space and freedom for flow to occur. Since motivation is the key to attention management, think about what drives you. This will energise you and allow flow to happen.