Attention vs Time Management: Why it Matters

Attention vs Time Management: Why it Matters
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We live in a productivity-obsessed culture, and for good reason. With more demands on our time and attention – including work, family commitments, and hobbies – it’s not surprising we want to do it all and still get a full night’s sleep. Most productivity tips revolve around time management — how do we squeeze as many things as possible into a small time frame? Some researchers, however, are proposing a new approach to productivity based on attention management, rather than time management. 

Read on to learn more about what attention management is, why it’s a better solution than time management, and how to manage your attention for optimal productivity. 

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The challenges of time management

Time management usually involves assigning a deadline and an amount of time to each task, in the hopes of getting more done in less time. The problem with the very concept of time management is that it assumes that, as a human being, you can in fact manage and control time. 

The reality is that time remains the same, ticking on to mark the days, weeks, months, and years. Despite any intervention we may dream of, time remains unchanging. We cannot control time. When we try to control time by squeezing in as much as possible into our day, we disappoint ourselves when we inevitably fail to control our time. 

When we tell ourselves that we’ll devote time to a task at exactly 10 am, the appointment we set for ourselves is easily broken because there’s no external accountability. In addition, missing this “appointment” is a huge trigger for procrastination and may lead to thoughts like, “Well, it’s 2 pm, so I can’t possibly get it done now!” Time management strategies may also lead to multitasking or frequent task-switching in an attempt to fit in as much as possible in a short period of time, but studies show that multitasking actually reduces productivity. 

What is attention management?

Instead of focusing on controlling your time, attention management is all about controlling your attention span. Productivity expert Maura Thomas defines attention management as “the ability to consciously direct your attention in any given moment, to be more proactive than reactive, and to maintain control rather than inadvertently relinquish it.”

Psychologist Adam Grant defines it as, “the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments.” 

When you focus on managing your attention instead of your time, you shift away from setting a goal like “review that pull request from 10 am to noon” and towards a goal like “review pull request.” If you sit down at 5 pm to review the code, you haven’t failed at your goal as long as it gets done. 

The idea is to stop analyzing how you’re spending time and instead focusing on what things are demanding your attention throughout your workday.

Benefits of attention management vs. time management

In the New York Times, Adam Grant quotes the following by E.B. White: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” According to Grant, productive people who manage their attention don’t have to make this hard choice. They do both. He advocates for a shift of focusing on why you’re doing specific tasks, instead of how fast you can get something done. This shift can increase motivation which in turn increases productivity. 

Obsessing over managing time and squeezing as much into the day as possible always leads to feelings of disappointment and failure. Those negative emotions can further fuel unwanted behaviors like procrastination. Always filling our day with more activities in an attempt to control time can also take away much needed downtime that fuels creativity. 

On the other hand, attention management is a process of understanding and working with your state of mind. It’s about understanding that we cannot control time, but we can control where our attention goes

How to manage your attention in 3 steps

Attention management skills can change how you think about productivity. Many attention management strategies may be familiar to you as general productivity strategies, but attention management reminds us to view productivity not as a function of time, but rather attention. Here are the three steps towards making that switch in mindset.

1. Recognize what state of mind you are in at any given moment.

Attention management starts with recognizing which of the four brain states or quadrants of attention you are in throughout the day. The four brain states are: 

Reactive and Distracted 

This is the most common brain state that we remain in throughout the day. In this brain state, our attention is easily consumed by internal and external distractions like email, phone calls, notifications, social media apps. These distractions, as well as the internal temptation to procrastinate, can keep you in this brain state. As you can probably guess, the Reactive and Distracted brain state is not conducive to getting much done. 

Focused and Mindful 

This brain state is the opposite of Reactive and Distracted. When you’re focused and mindful, you’re actively concentrating and putting effort into whatever you’re working on. This also means you’re deliberately pushing unwanted thoughts out of your brain and reducing the distractions in your environment to make sure your full attention is on the task at hand. A common misconception is that focus just naturally happens, but it does take work and intentionality. Some of the best work happens in this brain state, and it’s within your power to get there! 

Daydreaming or Mind Wandering

In this mind state, you’re not giving your attention to a single activity, but you’re also not giving into distractions. Most daydreaming might happen when you’re on the subway or in the shower. It can be tempting to give into the distractions of social media or to fill this time with “productive” tasks like checking email. The important thing to remember is that letting your mind wander is essential in developing deep insights and creative thoughts. Focusing on time management productivity can cut out essential daydreaming, and giving into distractions can prevent deeper thoughts from forming during this time. 

Flow

The flow state is a deeply focused state where you lose yourself in a task. The part of your mind that’s aware of physical needs and the environment is shut off. You don’t feel hungry or cold or notice what’s going on around you. This seems like the perfect place for productivity, but the problem is that you can’t will yourself into a flow state. And because a flow state involves turning off your physical needs, it can lead to a need for extended rest afterwards. While you can’t force a flow state, you can train yourself to enter the Focused and Mindful state. If you stay Focused and Mindful for long enough, you may slip into Flow. 

2. Identify the best brain state for the task.

The next step in attention management is identifying the best brain state for what you’re working on. For most tasks, Focused and MIndful is the ideal state to be in. This step also involves understanding how your energy flows and fluctuates throughout the day. Are you more likely to be productive in the evening or in the morning? Prioritize important tasks that require a Focused and Mindful state during the times you have the most mental energy. 

3. Shift your brain state to the appropriate one for the task.

Once you determine which brain state you want to be in, the next step is to shift to that brain state. It’s not easy to shift between brain states, but it is doable. It just takes practice! 

Switching to a Focused and Mindful state means that you take back control over distractions instead of letting distractions control you. Instead of saying, “People always interrupt my work,” proactively ask people to not distract you. You can do this by having some sort of visual cue that tells co-workers and family members not to disturb you, like having headphones on or closing the door. Tell people that when they see this cue, they should know not to interrupt you.

Bonus tips!

  • Are constant pings keeping you Reactive and Distracted?
    If you need a little help shifting into Focused and Mindful, we recommend a time orchestration tool like Clockwise. Clockwise optimizes your schedule to make time for what matters, like more uninterrupted Focus Time. It even connects to Slack to automatically turn on Do Not Disturb whenever you’re in a meeting or in Focus Time. 
  • Take frequent breaks.
    Keep in mind that Focused and Mindful is a brain state that requires rest. The Pomodoro Method, which builds break time into your productivity sessions, can be super helpful here. Although it’s technically based on time, it can help you stay focused on a single task and help you find your natural stopping point. The short breaks are perfect for entering a quick Daydreaming and Mind Wandering state which can fuel creativity for your next pomodoro.
  • Take care of your workspace.
    The workday is full of distractions, especially when working from home. Close your email, hide your phone, and avoid falling into an endless scroll on LinkedIn and Instagram. Keep your environment optimized for better focus and productivity.

Going forward

Attention management vs. time management is mostly a conceptual shift in how you approach productivity, but it can mean a world of difference. Focusing on where your attention goes (instead of time spent on a task) can raise your self-esteem and help prevent procrastination. By giving less attention to small distractions and devoting your attention to what matters, you’ll find yourself getting more done throughout the day.

About the author

Judy Tsuei

Judy Tsuei is a Simon & Schuster author, speaker, and podcast host. She’s been featured in MindBodyGreen, BBC Travel, Fast Company, Hello Giggles, and more. As the founder of Wild Hearted Words, a creative marketing agency for global brands, Judy is also a mentor with the Founder Institute, the world's largest pre-seed accelerator. Judy advocates for mental and emotional health on her popular podcast, F*ck Saving Face. Follow along her journey at WildHeartedWords.com.

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