Productivity Is Not About Time Management: It’s About Paying Attention

What does it mean to “pay attention”? Read an article from start to finish? Keep your eyes on a video until it invites you to replay? Not pick up your phone every time it buzzes with a notification?

When it comes down to it, you can do all of those things well enough without actually paying attention. For instance, I’ve “read” entire, detailed instructions for projects I’m about to work on only to get to the end and think to myself, Wait, what just happened? I was no more knowledgeable about the project than I’d been when I started reading. That’s because I didn’t really perceive the words in front of me. My eyes may have been on them, but meanwhile, my brain fluttered from topic to topic, and flashy ads poached my attention from the side of my computer screen (of course I was reading online).

“In 2016, research firm Dscout found that we “touch” our phones around 2,617 times a day.”

It’s no secret that productivity and time management are the hot topic, but very few hone in on attention management. That’s too bad because the latter’s role in the former is crucial. It’s hard to manage your time if you’re letting so much of it slip away as you perform activities without actually focusing on them and extracting value from the experiences. And then there’s that demon called distraction, constantly waiting in the wings to pry us from the task at hand.

“When we switch between tasks, we suffer a degradation of performance that then could impact every aspect of our cognition from our emotional regulation to our decision making to our learning process,” Dr. Adam Gazzaley, author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, told NPR. In other words, multi-tasking (a euphemism for “being distracted”) hurts our productivity. It doesn’t help it, like most people living in the digital world have come to believe. So how do we reassess our definitions of productivity to prioritize attention management?

attention management productivity – Skillshare.jpg

First, it’s important to tackle what productivity means to people now—multi-tasking and time management. Those two aspects are often at odds.

So much of what we need to accomplish these days, we can accomplish using our smartphones. We can stay on top of meetings, in touch with colleagues, and up-to-date with the news while simultaneously performing our other daily tasks. In 2016, research firm Dscout found that we “touch” our phones around 2,617 times a day (perhaps the number’s gone up). Another study, according to Business Insider, said people with mobile devices engage in about 150 mobile “sessions” per day. During those sessions, people sent text messages, made calls, checked the time, listened to music, played games, used social media (in that order of frequency), and more. Low and behold, attention management matters more to your productivity than ever.

When multitasking hurts attention management

All this is helpful in terms of multi-tasking, but harmful when it comes to attention management. In the midst of performing productive activities on their phones, people tend to get lost in the, well, not so productive ones. According to SocialMediaToday, the average person spends “nearly two hours (approximately 116 minutes) on social media every day, which translates to a total of 5 years and 4 months spent over a lifetime.” That’s a lot of time, and anyone’s who’s ever used social media knows for a fact it’s not all—not even mostly—productive.

For example, you may need to use Twitter for work. Say you’re a writer who needs to post links to publicize your stories, or you’re even a company’s social media manager. You go to Twitter to post something in a professional capacity…and end up starring at bot-made emoji aquariums for the next five minutes. This is literally something I just did.

But don’t despair! There are ways to avoid these truly wasteful (albeit whimsical) moments and keep your on attention on the important things (sorry, emoji fish). Explore these best practices from Fast Company, NPR, and most importantly our newest productivity class from ToDoist

Turn off phone notifications, and set aside specific time slots for checking your phone.

Sure, sometimes you’re waiting for that really important call and need to your smartphone close with the volume turned up high. However, when this is not the case, phones interrupt and distract. To help you zero in on a single project, turn your phone off or put it somewhere out of reach. Don’t cheat and put it out of sight but within buzzing distance. The whole idea is to ignore it entirely. Then, every couple of hours or so (which seems frequent, but we constant phone users know this is akin to a decade in phone time), go get your phone, deal with the business you must attend to, and then put it back in its hiding space.

Don’t confuse being busy with being productive.

Taking time off isn’t the root of all that is professional evil. It is mentally healthy and will make it easier to center your attention when you need to. If you let your brain hop around frenetically all the time, it will forget how to relax. Though this is certainly a not a scientific explanation of the way the brain works, trust me, it’s an experiential one. Making sure you let your brain rest will make you more efficient when you have to work hard, which will, in turn, free up more time for you to relax. This positive cycle will continue.


List your priorities, and don’t spend disproportional time on the items at the bottom of your list

Instead of doing whatever demands your attention in the moment (a funny social post, a news alert to your phone, a flashy bit of clickbait), do what’s most important for you to accomplish at that moment. This can be surprisingly difficult, so to keep yourself on task, it helps to write a list of your priorities for the day, from most to least crucial. When you find yourself spending too much time on those low (or no) priority tasks, snap out of it. Go back to your list. Focus on what’s at the top. This exercise will go from extremely tricky to almost second nature if you practice it regularly over time.

Use tools to help keep you disciplined.

There’s no shame in getting some outside help as you embark on your attention management journey. In a world with so much distraction, it’s no surprise people have created a variety of tools to help you manage (and avoid) the frequent interruptions to your workday. From collaborative project managers like Asana and Trello to Todoist, which even lets you organize your tasks offline for a more distraction-free environment, there’s plenty of software out there to help you stay on target when it comes to both your daily personal obligations and your professional work.

You made it to the end of this blog post. Congratulations! If you’re not exactly sure why I’m congratulating you on the effort, you’d better go back and read it again. This time, pay attention.

Ready to find your focus + hit big goals in 2018? Visit ToDoist’s new, FREE productivity class for tactics, tips, and tricks to master “attention management”.

Visit ToDoist’s Free Class