Attention Management

For productivity and a meaningful life, stop trying to manage your time and start managing your attention.

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Cover: Woodgrain studio

We are, as Tim Harrera puts it, ‘overstimulated, under-focused navigators of the modern world’. Every which way we look there is a gadget of some kind, some sort of distraction, waiting for us. The old world had distractions too but nothing of the magnitude we find today. With this come two buzzwords: productivity and time management, and they are both hornets’ nests.

The problem with time management

Productivity is generally a reference to getting significant work done. It is about achieving a meaningful number of self-defined accomplishments consistently. And the most popular route to that is time management.

The trouble with time management, though, is that we are severely limited by design: we have 24 hours in a day and, as Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times, ‘focusing on time management just makes us more aware of how many of those hours we waste’. Further, time management can often ironically go against our priorities. In an interview with Roger Dean Duncan for Forbes Maura Thomas says—

Time management teaches us to say ‘no’ more often and ‘do less’. But saying ‘no’ deprives the world of those unique gifts. And because many people ‘have to’ work, the things they say ‘no’ to tend to also be the things that nurture and sustain them: things like hobbies, recreation, family time, and volunteer activities.

So it is settled. Time management can potentially be a waste of time. The real solution, as a series of Times newsletters brought to my attention all through 2019, is attention management.

Attention management, unlike time management, is not corporate speak. It is an approach backed by science and incredible spirit. It is about prioritising the people and work that matter with the understanding that when something really matters it makes little difference how long it actually takes in your day. By managing attention rather than time priorities work their way into the system inherently. ‘Attention management’, says Adam Grant, ‘is the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments.’

The reason time management became as popular as it is today is because it redefined the meaning of productivity in our lives. But it is important to remember, as Dr Grant says, ‘Productivity isn’t a virtue. It’s a means to an end.’ Productivity and time management rely on will power, understating the why will automatically draw your attention to a task and, says Dr Grant, ‘you will be ‘pulled into it by intrinsic motivation’.

Why attention management works

I have previously spoken several times about intentional living. Choosing what we do carefully, no matter what mould it fits into or does not, knowing that every step we take is intentional, goes a long way in improving our quality of life. Little did I know that in describing intentional living I was in a way describing attention management. ‘Attention management allows us to be more proactive than reactive,’ says Ms Thomas. ‘It allows us to live lives of choice rather than reaction and distraction.’

Such choice is key to attention management. Whereas time management lets you allot time slots for whatever tasks come your way and asks you to cull them as they come, in effect making you flail around in the winds of chance, attention management takes a fundamentally reversed approach and asks that you pick your tasks based on what they mean to you and devote your attention to them.

Think in terms of meaning and focus rather than time. Do not focus on when and how quickly you want to finish something, focus instead on why you want to do it. That will justify why a task deserves your attention and time, and if it does deserve all that, you will have no reason not to focus on that task.

Managing distractions

The key to managing attention is identifying obstacles. There are two types of obstacles: actual distractions and perceived distractions. The former we are quite familiar with; the latter is less precisely spelt out although we are all probably aware of it.

‘Intrinsic distraction’ as I like to call perceived distraction is a problem that often goes unrecognised. Ms Thomas points out, ‘Even when there is no distraction, we distract ourselves by expecting one.’ This tends to add up quickly and has the effect of unaccomplished tasks demoralising us and making us feel unproductive. Since productivity has been linked so often and so closely with time management, that is often all we look at while we seek a solution, leading to a vicious circle.

There is renewed focus on attention management today thanks to the information age in which we live. Unlike before, when we accessed data as we needed and with specificity (say from books in a public library), we are now surrounded by data that itself beckons us constantly and often even commands us, with no target, motivation, rhyme or reason. The fact that we can get quick answers, no matter how little they may be vetted, prompts us to constantly seek answers. We are addicted to distracting ourselves because of its convenience and reliability.

However, the fact that gadgets are our primary distraction today does not mean we must advocate for an ‘unplugged lifestyle’. Tim Herrera calls this ‘a silly idea that is an impractical solution to a practical problem. Rather, the point is to notice your surroundings, to be mindful of the world you’re navigating, and to give yourself permission to slow down and just … observe.’ Once again, this is about being mindful of what we give our attention to—this is about living intentionally.

Attention residue

The big question that needs to be answered is ‘Why?’. Why should we choose what we pay attention to? Why not pay attention to everything? In understanding this I like to draw attention to the phrase ‘paying attention’. Think of attention as something you keep in your wallet. You pay it out every time you choose something to pay attention to. That means you will soon run out of it and can only rejuvenate it (see below), say, the following day. So choosing what we pay attention to is important for attention management. After all, there is hardly any management needed if a resource is infinite.

The technical term for this is ‘attention residue’. Attempting a tough or disliked task soon after an interesting one can make it harder to finish the disliked task because your capacity to pay attention has drained out. Studies on such ‘contrast effects’ of attention support the classic advice to start with what you dislike or find tough and then set aside tasks you like as a reward for later. While managing attention, always keep track of attention residue.

Cal Newport writes about attention residue in his book ‘Digital minimalism’. Mr Newport is an ardent advocate of quitting social media altogether, and Mr Herrera surprisingly agrees with him despite having called the idea impractical (see above). In any case, this is what Mr Newport says of attention residue:

Every time you switch your attention from one target to another and then back again, there’s a cost. This switching creates an effect that psychologists call attention residue, which can reduce your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears. If you constantly make “quick checks” of various devices and inboxes, you essentially keep yourself in a state of persistent attention residue, which is a terrible idea if you’re someone who uses your brain to make a living.

Despite liking his books, such as ‘Deep work’ and ‘Digital minimalism’, I have always disagreed with Mr Newport’s insistence that quitting social media is the only option. It reminds me of the vain attempts many made all through history to oppose change and new technology. Change on a natural level cannot be fought; it can merely be adapted to. Limiting social media use, for example, and cutting down the number of social networks we are active on to no more than a couple is often a more pragmatic approach.


The fact that we can run out of our capacity to pay attention means we must find ways to rejuvenate ourselves and refill our stores of attention. This calls for a balance between our focused and diffuse modes of thinking.

Paying attention means working in our focused mode. It gathers a lot of energy, sets up neural patterns and allows us to accomplish tasks via honest work and efficiency. This can be strengthened in the diffuse mode, where we are not focussing on any specific activity and are instead lost in thought. This includes a casual walk, sleep, exercise and various forms of relaxation. The diffuse mode strengthens the neural patterns set up in our focused mode allowing us to focus better over time. Like life itself, what we need is a balance between the two.

Ms Thomas says, ‘Our challenge is that now in any pause of activity, we immediately pull out our phone, and engaging with e-mail, social media, or other communication tools destroys the opportunity to daydream.’ She calls the diffuse mode ‘in-between moments’. She continues, ‘When we are daydreaming, we’re not actively controlling our thoughts, we aren’t focused on anything in particular, and we don’t have a lot of external stimulus. This is when our minds can wander and “stumble” into connections and insights that are otherwise crowded out.’

Striking this balance can prove to be rejuvenating and enriching to our life both immediately (trust me, I have experienced it) and in the long run.

Achieving this can be easy and fun too and never takes time for itself. Rejuvenate your attention by making small changes in how you live rather than by making it another big task in your day. Rob Walker, the author of ‘The art of noticing’ asks his readers to practise noticing things that they normally would fail to notice: ‘Walk to every corner of [a] building and just see what you see. Off to the doctor? Stay off your phone in the waiting room and … notice the people around you.’ This boosts intentional living and gives your mind pause from the constant onslaught of information it is otherwise subjected to.

The next time you find yourself wondering how you can accomplish things in your day, stop allotting time to everything. Instead ask yourself what really matters to you and choose how you allot your attention. Time will fly like it always does, but at least it will be pleasant this time—and it will be worth it.