If you regularly find yourself wishing for more hours in the day, you have company. But maybe the problem isn't time, which is why managing it better doesn't really work. Maybe it's where you put your attention that you should be ... well, paying attention to.
This idea has been percolating up through all sorts of places, from the tech and business worlds to spirituality and psychology. The upshot to managing your attention is that you won't have to learn to organize your time. It'll happen on its own.
Before getting into how to manage your attention, realize that it takes the same 30 minutes to answer emails for work, watch an episode of a TV show, read a chapter in a book, go through your Facebook or Twitter feeds, or determine which pattern to use for your knitting project. But what you get out of all those might be completely different. Remember, it's not just the time you put into something; it's about what you gain from it, too.
The key to managing your attention is to make sure you're always spending your attention where you want to, rather than on what distracts you. Think of it this way: If your attention is currency, where are you spending the most?
Remember, all those little 10- and 15-minute chunks add up. If you can eliminate some of the attention-suckers that give you nothing in return, you'll be more focused, calm, productive and happier.
This video, which features trainer and author Maura Thomas of RegainYourTime.com, provides a little inspiration about how to manage your attention.
Ask yourself some important questions first
Managing your attention is a skill, which means you'll need to practice to get better at it. Sometimes you'll try and fail, which is part of the process. Perseverance is key.
Jeremy Hunter is the founding director of the Executive Mind Leadership Institute and associate professor of practice at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management in Claremont, California. He wrote at Mindful.org that some hidden assumptions about what will happen if we stay focused are just wrong. So he put together a set of questions to ask yourself as you get into your attention-honing process:
Ask yourself these questions to clarify your priorities:
1. What are you doing to prioritize your day and develop an action plan when you are inevitably interrupted?
2. What is OK to say "no" to?
3. How will you handle interruptions when they arise?
4. Do you hold an assumption that you must respond to any interruption?
5. Are you afraid you will be disliked/unloved/fired if you fail to respond immediately to an email?
Put down the phone
Reducing the time spent on your devices is one way to minimize distractions. Try the following:
1. Disable all push notifications for your apps. You don't need to know every bit of breaking news the moment it happens, unless that's your job. If it's not, can't it wait? And you definitely don't need to know every time a person likes or comments on your Instagram page or Twitter stream.
2. Remove games from your phone. Unless you really value the time you spend gaming, these are just time-wasters and distractions from other, more productive tasks.
3. Don't look at your phone first thing in the morning. As countless articles and advisers have noted, starting your day off with meditation, journaling, exercise or reading — anything that's focusing and productive — is better than staring at your phone. (If you absolutely have to, check email to make sure nothing truly important has occurred, then put it away until you begin work or purposefully want to read the news.)
4. Put your phone in a bag or leave it in the other room when you're eating a meal with another person or people.
Multitasking is a bad habit and, like all bad habits, it's tough to break. Once you aren't as distracted by your phone, it will be a little easier to stay on task.
1. If you work most of the day on a computer, turn off push notifications there, too.
2. Open a new browser window for each new task and full-screen the page so you can't see other tabs winking or distracting you.
3. If you remember that there's something you need to check, make a note rather than clicking over or making a call to take care of it when you think of it. "That quick check introduces as a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing a message that you cannot deal with at the moment, (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished ," Cal Newport, the author of "Deep Work," told Quartz.
4. If you use Slack or another messaging service, close it for chunks of time.
Use your downtime
When the workday or week is over, don't work. Don't work. Don't work. Your time away from work is imperative to help you recharge and reset for the next set of tasks ahead. When you work during your downtime, you end up sneaking fun stuff into the workday or being OK with distractions, considering you never really got a break from work.
If you want to be productive when you're not working, that's totally fine. No need to laze on the couch if that's not your personality. Try things that are totally different from working, like exploring your city street by street, learning about photography, working out or cooking for the week ahead. Just don't check work email while you're doing it.
As you practice actively putting your attention where you want it to be (rather than letting a device or something else distract you into inaction), you'll get better at it and your work and life will move more smoothly. And you won't be wasting time, since your attention will almost always be where you want it to be.