Attention management, not time management

I serendipitously stumbled upon this beautiful article by Adam Grant on attention management. And no, it’s not yet another productivity or time management hack but a concept based on solid research.

Grant states that “attention management is the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments.” Here’s a gist of his case:

Being prolific is not about time management. There are a limited number of hours in the day, and focusing on time management makes us more aware of how many of those hours we waste.

A better option is attention management: Prioritize the people and projects that matter, and it won’t matter how long anything takes.

I don’t know about you, but focusing on time management does make me feel guilty. My daily and weekly review sessions can sometimes get overwhelming when I think about the time I had and the work that I could accomplish. If you dive deeper, you will realize that there are strong reasons why not all days are the same.

I don’t think I’ve paid much attention to leveraging my energy levels despite knowing its importance to my day-to-day productivity. All that knowledge goes for a toss when I’m facing those elephants in the room — my daily to-do list and the calendar.

Productivity and creativity demand opposite attention management strategies. Productivity is fueled by raising attentional filters to keep unrelated or distracting thoughts out. But creativity is driven by lowering attentional filters to let those thoughts in.

While we all agree there’s a manager and maker in us, we don’t pay enough attention to schedule our “creative” and “productive” blocks. For me, the former is within a few hours of waking up. Others do well right before lunch, and then night owls do their best creative work closer to midnight.

However, when it comes to your “productive blocks” or getting things done, your calendar and that “do not disturb” button are your best friends. This can be right after or right before your creative blocks, but the key is to understand that you need to do away with all the distractions. People, myself included, find it hard to do anything productive post-lunch. Night owls are, well, they’re designed to be their best when the world’s sleeping or winding their day down.

If you’re trying to be more productive, don’t analyze how you spend your time. Pay attention to what consumes your attention.

This goes back to understanding your priorities and staying focused on them as much as possible. You can’t schedule your way to high-performance, but you can deliver your best when you’re aware of your energy levels.

For example, it doesn’t make sense for me to do my writing or training in the evening or a couple of hours after lunch when I know I barely will have the energy to “think out of the box” or push myself harder. So, I schedule my calls during these hours. If there’s any decision to be made, knowing it’s not the best time for me to think deeply, I ask for some time and sleep over it.

The crux is to know and accept your limitations. Because even if you’re one of the top productivity ninjas on the planet, you cannot manage time. You, however, can manage your attention and tweak it as per your energy levels.

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