What is attention management? A modern twist on a nineteenth century productivity secret
If you know about my new book, you have likely been introduced to the term “attention management.” Although the phrase existed before I started using it, it was not used in relation to productivity. In fact, it was not particularly relevant or useful to our everyday lives.
Attention management is at the very heart of my work as a speaker, trainer, and author. Attention management is really just like it sounds—managing your attention.
My definition of it is a little more specific. I define it as the practice of creating the conditions that allow you to intentionally engage the most optimal brain state to achieve your best results in the moment.
A 19th Century Take on Attention Management
A psychologist and philosopher in the 19th century, William James, was an advocate of the ideas behind attention management. He wrote: “[Attention] is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”
Here, the key word is “one.” No one can give their attention simultaneously to all of the things that demand it. Attention management allows you to be more proactive than reactive. It means you decide where your attention goes instead of letting outside demands decide it for you.
William James suggested that attention management gives you the ability to maintain control over your thoughts and actions, rather than inadvertently relinquishing this control.
Attention Management Helps You Live a Life of Choice Rather Than a Life of Reaction and Distraction
Today, you can use attention management as a defense against the damage our fast-paced, technology-rich environment does to our mind, body, and soul. It’s also essential for achieving your most significant results daily, so that you can stay in control of your days, and therefore ultimately, your life.
You might wonder if attention management is just “focus.” But you can think of it as the collective practice of a group of behaviors, including focus, concentration, mindfulness, presence, and flow. It offers the ability to consciously direct your attention in any given moment despite distractions, to be more proactive than reactive, and to maintain control over your thoughts, rather than inadvertently relinquishing control.
Attention management is the antidote to everything in our environment that sabotages our attention. We live in a fast-paced, “always-on” society, and that has negative consequences for our ability and efforts to be productive.
Attention management is the key to controlling distractions, maximizing focus, and becoming engaged in “flow.” It helps you to be present in the moment, whether that be at work or at leisure. It helps you to maximize your brain power and your unique skills to bring your best self to the moment—what I call “unleashing your genius.”
Our Attention Determines the Life We Lead
Another quote from William James: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” Your attention determines the experiences you have, and the experiences you have determine the life you live. This implies that you must control your attention to control your life. Productivity is basically about directing your activities to do more of the things that are important to you. Attention management is the logical path to get you there.
Being able to control your attention requires practice. You’ll be more successful on some days than on others. Managing your attention depends on several factors. It’s not just about distraction.While attention management is a skill to be developed, there are also physiological factors. Sleep, nutrition, and hydration play an important part in your ability to control your attention, also. When these important elements are neglected, your focus, productivity level, and ability to avoid distractions will also suffer.
Single Focus Instead of Multi-Task to Increase Effectiveness
Attention management is the idea that how you spend your time is relevant only to the extent that you also devote your attention, because time spent on a task with divided attention is much less effective than time spent focused on the task without interruption.
To be sure, traditional “time management” theory still contains useful concepts, such as making lists, setting goals, and prioritizing tasks. It’s the practical application of these ideas that fail the test of time, and most time management training has not been updated to keep up with modern technology and the increasing pace of business. Distraction is the single biggest problem for knowledge workers today. Attention management is the skill we need in our modern, technology-driven society.
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