Rethink the way you approach your to-do list.

By Maggie Seaver
June 18, 2020
Advertisement

There’s a reason why time management has become an unattainable and insufficient approach to productivity for many people. Maybe you consider poor time management skills your worst shortcoming, something that holds you back at home and at work. But why should anyone be expected to be able “manage” time? Time is an indefinite, autonomic construct, and therefore inherently unmanageable. 

How many times have you told yourself you were going to do this thing at 2 p.m. You start doing that thing at 2, but a more pressing email comes through—ding!—and you need to answer it. You're then mesmerized by your inbox full of other emails; might as well answer those while that window’s up. One email links to an article that reminds you of another article your friend sent you the other day that you forgot to read. You start reading and realize it’s already 2:28, and you've only allotted one hour to do that first thing. (Cue the anxiety and self-scolding.)

You can’t turn the clock back to 2 p.m.—or pause time while you make up those lost 28 minutes of work. What you can do instead, is reframe how you think productivity should be achieved. Instead of trying (and failing) to keep up with time, master your attention—the ability to choose when, and on what, you do (or don’t) concentrate.

Why time management doesn’t cut it anymore

“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 Maura Thomas, a productivity expert and author of Attention Management

According to Thomas, there are two main reasons why time management, as a concept, doesn’t suit a lot of people. “One, when we say time management, it gives us the illusion that we actually have control over time, when in fact we have none—time marches on no matter what you do,” she explains. 

Two, when most people think of managing their time, their first instinct is to make an appointment with themselves (at 9 a.m., I’m going to finish my quarterly analysis; at 10:30, I’ll start answering emails). The issue, as Thomas points out, is that it’s easy—the easiest—to break an appointment with yourself. Who’s going to stop you?

Time is still necessary and important, but it shouldn't be the one thing to which you chain your personal sense of productivity. Thomas recommends only utilizing your calendar for things that have a “strong relationship to time.” These are your appointments with other people, events, deadlines for projects due.

Other tasks that don’t technically have a deadline, for which you aren’t really accountable to someone else, have a weaker relationship to time. For these instances, sure, you could plan to work on something at 3 p.m., but “if you don’t also control your attention during that time block, it doesn’t matter,” Thomas says. “Whenever that time block ends, the task won’t be done if you don't also manage your attention.”

“If managing time means making appointments with yourself on your calendar, we’re failing at it, and we’ve always failed at it,” she says. “But the reason we fail at it now is because we have so many distractions.” 

What does it mean to manage your attention?

Through her research, writing, and experience teaching productivity, Thomas has come to define attention management as “a collection of behaviors that give you the opportunity to recognize where your head is at, and [the ability] to shift to the brain state that is more relevant in the moment.” 

Attention management is not completely divorced from the concept of time or time management, since they’re all interrelated. (As Thomas admits, “in some ways we’re talking about semantics, but the words that we use are powerful.”) 

But as a concept, its purpose is to shift your understanding of, and strategy for, how you motivate yourself: Instead of focusing on trying to control time, something nobody can control, you can focus on practicing control of your attention—something that’s very much doable (albeit with practice and willpower). Simply put, Thomas is determined to remind people they’re not helpless and to empower them to regain control of busy days. 

Get familiar with your own capacity for attention management

In order to understand attention management as a productivity method, we first have to understand how attention itself works, both broadly and personally. Let’s go back to those “brain states” Thomas mentioned, or the “four quadrants” of attention that we occupy and move between at any given point of the day.

She says, "if we loosely categorize the different brain states we could be in—of course there is an infinite number—but just in general buckets, they are: 1) Reactive and Distracted, 2) Focused and Mindful, 3) Daydreaming or Mind Wandering, and 4) Flow." 

1. Reactive and Distracted

This is the headspace most people stay in throughout the day, whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or a corporate consultant. In this state, you may be trying to focus, but you still lack control over your surroundings and remain at the mercy of distractions: email notifications, Slack pings, the phone ringing, wanting to read a cool article, someone popping by your desk to ask a quick question, feeling hungry for a snack, or a child interrupting a task while you’re working at home

“We’re switching from thing to thing...and we’re just multitasking—or, more accurately, task-switching—through our day," Thomas says. You may start a project intending to see it through, but a multitude of external distractions and internal temptations to procrastinate keep you in the reactive and distracted state, which is, unsurprisingly, not the ideal attention management quadrant to be in for optimal productivity. 

2. Focused and Mindful

“This second bucket is sort of the polar opposite,” Thomas says. The focused and mindful state is one in which you are actively concentrating. You’re putting effort into centering all your attention on one task (writing and sending a long email report) or maybe dedicating a certain amount of time and concentration to a set of tasks (taking the time to send several emails you’ve been putting off). 

Either way, Thomas says, in this quadrant “you're taking steps to ensure you’re not disturbed, you’re actively pushing out other thoughts that creep in, and you maintain your attention for an extended period of time on a more cognitively demanding task.” 

This is the most obvious headspace to tap into in order to be your most productive and efficient self. Thomas references Cal Newport, author and associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, who popularized the term “Deep Work” to describe the type of work that happens in this state. 

3. Daydreaming or Mind Wandering

“This is where we’re not actively directing our attention anywhere in particular, but we are actively resisting distractions,” Thomas explains. “You let your mind wander and just be, and you’re intentionally saying “no” to taking out your phone to send a text, turning on the TV, or even putting in a podcast. Thomas refers to these as quiet moments or “in-between” moments, where you’re waiting for the bus, in line to order at a coffee shop, or walking across a parking lot to get your car. 

It may seem harmless, even smart—productive!—to fill these in-between moments with activity or distraction (why not knock some emails out while riding in the elevator?), and it often can be. But it’s important to find balance, because it’s during these little pockets of mind wandering that all the good stuff happens. 

“This daydreaming state is when we have insight, when we get ideas, and when our creativity really comes out,” she says. “You can’t command yourself to have an insight, a new idea, or solve a problem. It’s only in those quiet moments when those things can happen. We’ve come to the realization somehow that if we’re not doing, doing, doing, then we’re not being productive. But really, the exact opposite is true.”

4. Flow

And finally, there’s flow, the deeply focused psychological state in which your brain works differently than in any of the other three quadrants. This psychological concept was first recognized and named by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, and involves an effortless losing of oneself in one’s task. “What it means when you’re in flow is that the part of your brain that recognizes yourself in time and space (I’m hungry, I’m cold, this is boring, I wonder if anyone liked my Instagram post) goes away,” Thomas says. “You are fully immersed in the task at hand; it is total absorption in what you’re doing.” 

In other words, without even realizing it, you’re in the zone. The perfect mental place for productivity, right? But there’s one catch: “You can’t command yourself into flow,” Thomas says, adding, however, that “[w]hen you stay in the focused and mindful headspace for an extended period of time, you might get lucky enough to flip into flow.”

“These are the four brain states we can lump our brain activity into, and attention management ultimately is the ability to recognize which one you’re in and then consciously shift to the one that will best serve you in the moment,” she says.

How to manage your attention

If the first step toward mastering attention management is cultivating awareness of where your mind is at a given moment, the second is recognizing which brain state is ideal for the task at hand—and then intentionally shifting yourself into that brain state in order to get it done.

It’s fair to say that “focused and mindful”—not the more prevalent “reactive and distracted” state—is an ideal mental place to inhabit on a busy day. But how do you get there first thing in the morning when you’re sleepy and foggy? Or around noon when the pile of tasks on your plate is officially overwhelming? Or around 3 p.m. when you’re hungry, you’re tired, and your coworkers (or family) are being disruptive? You take back control. 

“People tell me they need to get their work done, but [they can’t because] people keep interrupting them. People are always going to interrupt you,” explains Thomas. “The only way you can stop being interrupted is to tell people to stop interrupting you for a period of time.” 

As Thomas puts it: Attention is the antidote to distraction. Instead of letting distractions control you, recognize your own agency over them. “The two most critical techniques for [getting started] controlling your attention are to control your environment and your technology,” she says. Here’s how.

Control your environment

One way to do this is to create signals that communicate to others you’re trying to stay focused. It could be a literal do not disturb sign; it could be putting on headphones, too; if you have an office or separate work area, it could be closing the door; or it could be all of the above, if you need. “Whatever the signal is, be explicit about it—don’t expect that just because you have headphones in people will know it means do not disturb. You have to tell them,” Thomas insists. “When my do not disturb signal is up that means don’t bother me unless it’s truly an emergency. That is an example of controlling your environment. ” 

It’s not realistic to expect to have a “don’t bother me” signal up for the whole day, but Thomas recommends shutting yourself off to focus deeply for, say, 20 minutes every hour, or for 90 or so minutes twice a day. “The frequency and duration are up to you, and it depends on the nature of your job or how much the people around you need you,” she says. 

Control your technology

Once you’ve created a distraction-free environment, it’s time to eliminate the ultimate distraction: your device. Every notification banner, number, dot, ping, DM, is designed to snatch your attention. They do a good job of it, too, but you have more control than you think. 

“The second step to controlling your environment and attention is to close out of your email or go into offline or do-not-disturb mode,” Thomas advises. Yes, even if the very task you’re working on is email. 

“If I have 50 [emails] I have to answer, the only way I’m going to do that is if I stop new messages from coming in,” she says. “Otherwise I won’t get to the existing 50, because I’ll answer the first one and then there will be a new one (and a new and a new one).” Turn your attention to new emails only after you’ve responded to the existing messages you set out to answer.

Then hide your phone—and “anything else around you that buzzes or pings or vibrates or otherwise calls your attention,” Thomas says. Put it on Do Not Disturb, silent and face-down—or even better, out of sight somewhere. “Studies show that just the presence of our phone distracts us, even if it’s off and face-down.” (Don’t panic, you can check your phone and email and Google chats and Twitter and everything else when your designated focus period is up.)

If you’re someone who likes background noise, be careful what you choose to listen to. You might think a podcast, The Office reruns, or rap music helps you focus, but it could be doing the opposite. 

“Everyone is different, but studies show that, in general, that’s super distracting. The most distracting thing to people is the sound of other people’s voices,” Thomas says. “If you really want noise, make it noise: classical music, ocean wave sounds, crickets chirping, or fire crackling.” 

Break down tasks and designate stopping points

When you decide it’s time to do a task, and you’ve eliminated potential interruptions, do that task, “either until it’s finished or until you get to the stopping point that you determined before you got started.” This is where time and attention go hand in hand.

If it’s one big task, break it into attainable pieces, the completion of which become your designated stopping points. Hone in on each with your full attention until they’re finished. Or set a timer and decide you’re going to direct all your attention to completing what you can in that time frame. 

Start to reform old habits

This step is about practicing the above habits in order to make focusing your attention second nature. 

“People ask me a lot, ‘Are we addicted to our devices?’ I’m not a psychologist, but what I can tell you is that our technology is habit-forming on purpose,” Thomas says. “All the apps on our phones...are designed to steal our attention.” 

Switching from task to task or giving in to the temptation of clearing a notification, checking a text, turning on the TV for background noise—all have become part of the fabric of our daily life. We’re essentially trained to be distracted at every turn. “We’ve become habituated to distraction,” Thomas believes.

By mitigating attention diversions, “you get more used to extended periods of time without [them] and you start to build up your ability to stay focused for longer,” she says. “Just as distraction is chipping away at your attention span, controlling those distractions builds up your attention span. [Eventually], instead of switching every few minutes, you have more ability to choose when you switch.”

“Our failure to achieve the things most important to us—which is how I define productivity—is not because we don’t have enough time in the day,” Thomas concludes. “We behave as if we’re completely helpless to all the stuff around us, when in fact, we’re not. To me, that’s the most important message and one I'm most passionate about...I really want people to understand that you have control over your attention. Well, maybe you don’t right now, but you can.”