Attention Management is the New Time Management

Attention Management is the New Time Management

Tariq Jarrar

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“Lost yesterday, somewhere between sunrise and sunset,

two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes.

No reward offered, for they are gone forever.”

I was first introduced to the concept of time management way back when there were few things to distract me and compete for my attention. Read the newspaper, daydream or congregate around the good old water cooler or fountain depending on what type of company you have worked for, to hook up to the office grapevine. It was only a decade later that the internet dial tone, snail pace speed became available in every office. Time, however, was still wasted in abundance. The buzzword in the banking industry at that time was productivity and service quality, so the organization I was employed by decided to optimize productivity by arranging for a time management coach to fly in from a distant part of the globe rumored to have tamed the “time beast”. I was very skeptical (not that I did not need time management discipline). I had the task prioritization skills of an amoeba, the ability to multi-task when I had one task, and I used to procrastinate about doing everything. Nevertheless, I could not understand how you can manage what you don’t own.

Fast forward to 2020 and the interruptions at work comes in many colors and forms and the statistics out there are exciting, yet alarming. To share with you a few, according to a recent survey conducted by OfficeTeam, on average, employees spend eight hours per workweek on nonwork activities.

And this is how the eight hours per week are squandered:

Personal E-mails – 30%

Social Networks – 28%

Sports Sites – 8%

Mobile games – 6%

Online Shopping – 5%

Entertainment Sites – 3%

Of course, there are other ways in which time was wasted. According to a recent survey by CareerBuilder some of the weirdest things that employees were doing include:

  1. Taking a sponge bath in the bathroom sink.
  2. Trying to hypnotize other employees to stop their smoking habits.
  3. Drinking vodka while watching Netflix..
  4. Making a model plane.
  5. Printing out pictures of animals, naming them after employees and hanging them in the work area.

Although the above practices are on the bizarre side, nevertheless, wasted time at work is a real problem.

The digital revolution has augmented the way and the speed at which content is generated, received, and shared.  Now, the world is continuously available at our fingertips, or be more precise, in the palm of our hand. With the cacophony of radio, television, internet, advertising, ways to instantly communicate, all competing for our time and more importantly our attention.

Allocating time to a task that is on your to-do list doesn’t mean that the job will receive your full attention, and without attention the time that you have allocated to this task becomes irrelevant.

“What information consumes is rather obvious.

It consumes the attention of its recipients.

Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

–Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon

Time Management without Attention Management will not be sufficient. There’s a wealth of information on how to minimize distractions and many tips on how to manage that. However, it is critical that we first understand how our attention works.

The Sum and Substance About Our Attention

  1. Our Attention is limited. Researchers through many studies have verified that our attention is limited in its capacity and duration. That is a substantial proof that multitasking infrequently works well.
  2. Our Attention is Selective. Therefore, we have to be picky about the things we pay attention to. “We must be selective in our attention by focusing on some events to the detriment of others. This is because attention is a resource that needs to be distributed to those events that are important” rationalized by the author Russell Revlin in his book Cognition: Theory and Practice.

We have to be selective about what we focus on, but we must also filter out other stimuli in our environment that individually and collectively distract us.

The next crucial step is to identify what distracts you in the first place. Understand the effect of distractions on the quality of your work, productivity and how it impacts your life.

Distractions in our life aren’t always easy to recognize since many distractions are minute with effects that may go unnoticed. For example, the many alerts and notifications that we receive on the multitude of devices that clutter our life but when all of these distractions are added up, over time it has a significant impact on our productivity.

As The New York Times reported, a UC Irvine study found that a typical office worker gets interrupted every 11 minutes – yet it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task. According to a national survey which was conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder between February 10 and March 17, 2016, the following wasting time statistics were revealed.

Wasting Time at Work

When asked to name the biggest productivity killers in the workplace, employers cited cell phones/texting, followed by the Internet and workplace gossip:

  • 55% cited cell phone/texting
  • 41% cited the Internet
  • 39% cited gossip
  • 37% cited Social Media
  • 27% cited co-workers dropping by
  • 27% cited cigarette breaks or snack breaks
  • 26% cited e-mail
  • 24% cited meetings
  • 20% cited noisy co-workers
  • 9% cited sitting in a cubicle

The most important tip to deal with the distractions is to eliminate or limit the source of it. Sometimes that might not be in our control. Nevertheless below are a few tips that may help you in your pursuit to manage your attention.

Smartphones

Our relation with our smartphones is moving from intimacy to obsession.

The best way to prevent your smartphone from seducing you every second with notifications alerts and the latest ringtones is to turn your phone off or switch it to airplane mode. Last week the gentlemen sitting next to me on my metro commute had a ringtone of “KIKI DO YOU LOVE ME?!” (Oh how I miss the old ringtone of Nokia).

Audit your apps’ notifications settings. By default, most phones will send you a visual and auditable notification whenever there’s an activity on your feed or account. The more apps, the more colors and distractions at one point in time. I had so many apps that my phone would light up like a Christmas tree.

Remove unnecessary and distracting apps from your home screen. The problem with so many apps is that you will start with one app and then unconsciously move to the others. For example, I would start by looking at my WhatsApp and end up with Shazam reading the lyrics of some song playing in the background, then quickly check on Google. Whatever happened to that long-forgotten artist?

Make Your Smartphone screen much less sexy to look at by Switching to Grayscale. I have tried this last week and it highlighted how distracting the smartphones screens have become.

The Internet

When used in moderation and for constructive purposes, the internet is a fantastic advancement in technology and a great educational tool. However, when it is excessively used for social media, it becomes a problem rather than a solution. It becomes addictive and disruptive.

According to Ofcom’s Adults media, user and attitudes report of 2018, users to spend on average an alarming 24 hour a week online.  There is a lot of advice out there on how to limit your internet use. Ironically, some of them recommend the use of apps and browser plug-ins to control the habit, but I advise to keep it simple and just be mindful of the amount of time spent.

Chatty Co-Workers

I can go on for hours talking about chatty co-workers and what a distraction they are. I have experienced it with the many teams that I’ve led. Also, I have seen first-hand on how one co-worker can have a determinantal effect on the other team members.

They take different shapes and forms. There is the Office Comedian, the Office Prankster, the Go-To Me-If-You-Need-Anything type, and the worst kind is the Doom’s Day Prophet. Although each of the above chatty characters is damaging in their own way, the Doom’s Day Prophet is the worst. They are immune to their own poison of negativity. They will start the day by inflicting everyone from predicting the downfall of the company to the eradication of humanity and then move on to concentrate on their work and being productive while the rest toils. When it comes to any of the above chatty co-workers, the solution is simple, just walk away. Not only will you save time but you will not be considered an accomplice to the crime of wasting time.

E-mails

I have worked in and with many organizations where the culture of e-mails has become more of a plague. Rather than picking up the phone or leaning over from your cubicle to your colleague to discuss some issues, an e-mail will be sent copying the entire department. I always exclaimed to my team not to be copied on any e-mails unless it is crucial. E-mails should strictly be used to document or officially highlight an issue and not to demonstrate to the world that I can compose lengthy messages and that I am doing a great job while others are not.

The temptation of instantly replying to e-mails is a major distractor and can put you on a trajectory to multitasking and losing focus. Resist responding or saying something just because you were copied on it. If you feel that you have to acknowledge the receipt of an e-mail, then send automatic replies such as noted. But the best advice starts by reducing the number of e-mails you send in the first place. If you need to resolve a situation, try calling, or ask for a brief and structured meeting.

Meetings

Research from consultancy Bain & Co. suggests that 15% of workers’ time is spent in meetings and attending meetings — according to a recent People Management survey.

I believe that the above statistics are on the conservative side. Meetings, if not managed well, can waste a lot of time in events like preparing for the meeting, attending the meeting and following up on the meeting.

I had my share of attending many meetings and in most cases, I found myself asking 3 questions; Why was I part of this meeting? What was this meeting all about? And have we concluded anything in this meeting?

Meetings should be structured with a clear agenda and set of deliverables. The dreaded MOM (minutes of the meetings) should be a to-do list rather than documenting who said what. From experience, I found that if there is a subject that would require the participation of many departments and a complex decision making, then a workshop structure will be the best.

In Conclusion

Time management techniques and skills are more crucial than ever given the 21st century hectic pace, but to enhance the effectiveness of time management skills you need to factor in attention management. You should protect it by understanding the level of damage that all distractions that has been mentioned above have on your attention and your productivity. So, before you start working on the next to-do list, do a bit of spring cleaning and remove the clutter of distractors from your personal and professional life.