Forget Time Management: Attention Management Is The Key To Productivity

Sometimes, no matter how efficient you try to be with your time, there are still not enough hours in the day to get everything done. But what if I told you that you’re approaching productivity incorrectly?

By Caitlin Shaw4 min read
Pexels/Anastasia Shuraeva

What if the key to efficiency is learning how to manage your attention, not your time? 

The Shortcomings of Time Management

When I was in college, juggling all of my responsibilities was never a challenge for me. It didn’t matter that I had to rush from class to dance rehearsal to my part-time tutoring job to a friend’s birthday party all in one evening. As long as I managed my time by staying organized, updating my overly detailed to-do lists, and sticking to my calendar, I could maximize productivity with relative ease. It wasn’t until I entered the workforce that these tactics started failing me, and I learned that successfully managing my time was only part of the equation to mastering productivity. 

Part of this new struggle was that when I started my first corporate job, I was assigned projects for which I had no control over the deadlines. And last minute mandatory meetings would be added to my calendar that I was expected to work around. To make a long story short, the lack of control over my time came with a learning curve. I quickly realized that I couldn’t just block off my calendar, put my head down, and chip away at my workload like I used to. Even if I set aside the appropriate amount of time required for a task, I would get sidetracked by teammates pinging me with higher priority things or clients emailing new requests.

What I now realize is that the time management strategies that had worked so well in school weren’t enough. I had been trying, but failing, to control a phenomenon that was arguably unable to be controlled – time. But what I really needed to do was shift my focus and learn attention management. 

What Is Attention Management? 

The New York Times defines attention management as “the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places, and at the right moment.” Real Simple health and wellness writer Maggie Seaver defines it as a collection of behaviors that allow you to recognize where your head's at and the ability to shift to the brain state that is more relevant in the moment. And for good measure, one more slightly different definition from Harvard Business Review states, “Attention management is the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximizing focus, so that you can unleash your genius.” 

So what does all of that really mean? Attention management is the skill of teaching your mind to prioritize its focus on given tasks to achieve productivity. In fact, attention management is the key to productivity because you cannot be productive without centering your attention on your goal. 

Why Attention Management Is Better Than Time Management

The problem with time management is that it’s not foolproof. It doesn’t matter if you set aside a detailed hour-by-hour schedule for a project; if your mind isn’t focused, it will be a waste. As my personal story has shown, time management can definitely fail you in scenarios where your time is not really in your control. And since focus, which is critical for productivity, is always in your control, attention management solves the crux of time management’s pitfalls. 

Times writer Adam Grant goes so far as to say that time management is not even just the wrong approach, but it’s actually a hindrance to productivity. This is because by approaching productivity with the time management frame of mind, we become attuned to how much time we waste. Think about it – if you were to map out your day from start to finish, including making your bed, brushing your teeth, driving to and from destinations, etc. you’d learn that all those 15-20 minute increments add up to a lot of time taken away from productivity. Instead, reframe your thinking and spend your energy on figuring out how you can maximize your focus to achieve better productivity.

Grant writes, “If you're trying to be more productive, don’t analyze how you spend your time. Pay attention to what consumes your attention.” 

How To Practice Attention Management

According to Seaver from Real Simple, to unlock your greatest potential with attention management, it’s important to understand the different phases of your brain’s focus. At any point of the day, your brain is likely either daydreaming, trying (but failing) to focus, actively concentrating, or deeply enthralled in focus. The difference between active concentration and deep focus is that in active concentration you can still feel yourself in the world (hunger, needing to stand up and stretch, etc.), while the same is not true for deep focus. In a state of deep focus, or what Seaver calls “flow,” the mind is completely absorbed in the task at hand. If you have ever looked up from a task and realized an hour has gone by in what felt like five minutes, you just experienced flow. Knowing these different mindsets is key to the practice of attention management, but even more important is learning how to tap into each of these critical states.

First, control your environment. This could mean eliminating distractions from your physical space, turning off notifications on your cell phone, or making your space clean and organized so that you can focus. Second, create a plan that includes small milestones for yourself to reach your goal or complete a task. It’s not a bad idea to note reminders for which steps will require which type of focus to start to train your brain toward attention management.

Be smart about your habitual distractions. If you often “find yourself” on social media, make a rule that you won’t open Instagram without a specific reason, like posting or sending a message, or you’ll save scrolling for “dead times,” like standing in line or waiting for a big file to upload.

Furthermore, align your tasks with your natural energy levels. If you’re a morning person, do your heavy thinking and challenging tasks in the morning. If you’re a night owl, do those tasks in the afternoon or evening when you’re feeling the most awake and alert. The tasks will probably take the same amount of time, but you will make use of your best ability to focus. 

Weather can also affect our ability to focus, which is hardly a surprise to anyone. But what is surprising is that studies show bad weather tends to make people more focused and productive; we’re not distracted by the temptation to go outside and enjoy the nice weather.

Lastly, practice, practice, practice. The best way to unlock your fullest potential with attention management is to practice. Since attention management is the ultimate test in control, it could take significant time and effort to master. But with time, you will notice that your brain will start to move away from old habits like reaching for your phone or thinking about what you’re eating for dinner, and instead lock in to the task at hand. 

Closing Thoughts

Remember that attention management is a learned skill that takes practice, control, and patience. As Harvard Business Review states, “It’s about being intentional instead of reactive. It is the ability to recognize when your attention is being stolen (or has the potential to be stolen) and to instead keep it focused on the activities you choose.” Remember that what you choose to focus on in life directly leads to the kind of experiences you have. And in a world where we are constantly surrounded by distractions of all shapes and sizes, attention management has never been a more critical skill.

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