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Can I Have Your Attention?

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Award-winning productivity speaker Maura thomas explains why attention management dominates time management. 

By Amanda Pinney, Photo by Korey Howell

The concept of time management has long been regarded as the fundamental skill for prioritizing a busy life, but according to Maura Thomas, it’s not as simple as adding reminders to a calendar.

A TEDx speaker and author of two books, Thomas founded her business, Regain Your Time, upon her belief that “how you manage your time is only relevant to the extent that you also devote your attention.”

Here, Thomas shares five essential reasons that managing your attention is the key to mastering your time.

1. We don’t have the experience we intend to when our attention is elsewhere.

“Let’s say you and I schedule a lunch date to get to know one another, and I spend the majority of my time tending to other business on my phone, which prompts you to pull out your own phone. By the time the lunch is over, we have barely spoken to one another, which is not what we intended when we planned to get together. It doesn’t change the fact that the time passed. We set aside the time and the time passed, so we managed our time but it wasn’t what we expected it to be because our attention wasn’t there.”

2. We can’t complete our tasks very well when our attention keeps switching.

“You can say you’re going to start working on an article at 9 p.m. When that time rolls around, you decide you want to do some more research, so you hop online and find an article, which leads to another article and, before you know it, you’re watching cat videos. It’s very difficult to maintain your focus on the task at hand if you are also doing other things. When you’re task switching, you’re spending a couple minutes on small tasks, such as answering a text message or responding to an email, before returning to your original task. Theoretically, at 9 p.m., you still started your task, but you didn’t really get anything done. When we task switch, things take longer and the mistakes are higher because our attention is diverted to multiple places.”

3. Time management is primarily about a calendar and a clock.

“Time management says if you really want to do something, make an appointment on your calendar. If it’s on your calendar, then you’re serious and you’ll definitely do it. If that were true, we’d all be rich and skinny. The truth is the first person anyone makes an appointment with is themselves. It doesn’t matter if you put it on your calendar because ‘managing’ your time isn’t so relevant anymore. We have the internet in our pocket, and any whim, we can indulge with the touch of an app. Your only defense is your ability to control your attention, not a simple reminder on your calendar.”

4. Attention management is a critical skill against modern technology.

“Technology developers are actively working to manipulate your behavior, to steal your attention. It doesn’t make them bad or evil; it’s their job. But they are all sitting around saying, ‘How can we get people to interact with the app more often or stay on the website longer?’ Every market in the world is studying all the different ways to use your own psychology against you. We’ve been conditioned into this state of constant distraction, so in the absence of constant distraction, we’re actually bored and we seek out the distraction. We’ve gotten to the point where doing only one thing at a time is boring. If we lose that control over our attention, we lose control over our behavior and we lose sight of what’s actually important. You have to control your attention to control your life.”

5. Managing our attention helps us become situational learners.

“First responders and military use this expression of ‘situational learners,’ which means when you arrive on a chaotic scene, you don’t just go running to the first person who catches your attention. You assess the scene, you figure out a plan and then you begin to tackle the problem. That’s required during our days as well because making a list is great until you check your email and your whole list is blown out of the water. You need that situational learning, that attention management, to say, ‘OK, how does this new thing fit into the other stuff I had planned to do today?’ Otherwise, you end up just reacting and the squeakiest wheel might get the grease, but it might not be the most important thing you need to do.”

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