I’m a speaker and trainer on workplace productivity. You might imagine that that means I show people how to squeeze more and more work into their day, or how to fill every moment with activity, or how to accomplish five things at once.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Being constantly busy may sound impressive. Have you ever noticed how people love to brag about how crazy their schedules are? “Busy” has become a common answer to the question, “How are you?” But constant “busyness” is actually a pretty terrible way to get anything meaningful done. And it’s a recipe for a stressed and unbalanced life.
After years of teaching all types of companies and organizations to improve their productivity, I’ve seen what truly helps people do their best work — and live a life of choice. It’s not multitasking, and it’s not some must-have tech tool. It’s the ability to manage your attention with mindfulness and intention.
Why Attention Management Is the Secret
I know you’ve experienced for yourself just how interruption-filled our workplaces are. It’s hard to get away from emails, texts and other communications from our jobs, even when we’re allegedly on vacation. Then there are distractions that aren’t related to work—like social media notifications—that can still invade your workday.
If your office has an open layout, that brings a whole other set of disruptions, like chatty colleagues. But perhaps the biggest problem is that so many workplaces have an “always on” culture, where employees feel they have to be available 24/7.
Constant distractions and a frenetic pace aren’t good for our brains. In these circumstances, we tend to stay in reactive mode (aka “putting out fires”) all day. We never get around to our most important work — the projects that would give us deep satisfaction and make a real difference for the company. Instead, we stress ourselves to the point of burnout, frantically trying to stay on top of our emails and not let anything slip through the cracks.
To remedy this, we need the ability to direct our attention where we want it to go instead of letting it be stolen by all of the information that constantly bombards us. Attention management isn’t something we’re taught in school. But it’s a way of being that we can cultivate.
3 Tips for Attention Management
Time management is less relevant than in the past, because distractions are everywhere. Even if you put something on your calendar and commit your time, studies show it’s likely to take longer and be of lower quality if you don’t also devote your attention. There will continue to be unrelenting demands on your attention.
Your only defense against this, so that you can stay focused on what’s important to you, is to learn to control your attention. These three tips will provide a great start on your road to attention management.
1. Nurture your focused work
If you can’t seem to make headway on a major project, you may not be giving your brain what it needs to do the job. It’s easy to knock out some tasks — like routine emails or paperwork — in a lively open office. But for projects that take serious brainpower, you need some peace and quiet.
Can you retreat to a more serene area of your office where it’s easier to focus? (If there aren’t any spaces like this, consider talking to your boss about creating them.) If you can’t work somewhere else, wearing headphones is helpful for shutting out distractions and sending colleagues the signal that now is not a good time to interrupt.
2. When you’re resting, rest
Your brain can’t keep generating creativity and insights unless you give it some time in restorative mode. But it never gets to recharge if you’re constantly tethered to your email and other communications from the office.
You need both daily time to recharge—with family, friends and activities you love—and longer breaks from work, like weekends and vacations.
Think about how you can claim the rejuvenating time you need. This could mean questioning some of your assumptions and clarifying expectations with your colleagues.
For example, if your boss emails you in the evening or while you’re on vacation, does she really expect an instant reply? (In my experience with CEOs and other leaders, the answer is usually “no.”)
3. Tame your technology
High-tech tools are supposed to make our lives easier, not make us attend to their every demand. To focus on your attention on what’s important to you, take full advantage of features like “Do Not Disturb” on your phone.
Remember that your technology is intended for your convenience, not so anyone in the world can interrupt you at any time. So turn off notifications from apps. And do you really need a notification to tell you that you have new email? Just accept that you always do, and shut off all email notifications.
One last thing to remember
Your job and the technology you use have probably conditioned your brain to be distractible and jumpy. When you’re used to constantly checking your phone or switching between tasks, it’s going to feel unnatural to get quiet and give all your attention to the work you want to focus on.
You’ll probably be itching to just give your email a “quick check.” But don’t give in to the temptation. Set a timer for 10 minutes and then spend that time working on one thing, with email, texts and other distractions silenced. Then gradually increase the time until you can stay focused and undistracted for an hour or more.
Taking a few baby steps like these will help you work from a more attentive place. And that’s good for your productivity and your life.