Attention Management vs. Time Management: Five Ways to Emphasize What Truly Matters

“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. “ — E.B. White, American writer and co-author of ¬Elements of Style.

When it comes to using modern English, E.B. White, along with his mentor William Strunk, have influenced the style, readability, and productivity of five generations of Americans. If such a towering literary presence had trouble focusing his productivity, then it’s no surprise the rest of us do. Indeed, the entire industry of time management has grown up around our desire to use our most limited of resources effectively, so we can accomplish as much as possible in what time we have. Time management has become one of the more ingrained productivity toolkits of the modern worker.

Now, we all know “time management” is misnamed; in truth, you manage not time, but yourself. And as a growing number of observers have begun to realize, mere “self-management” isn’t enough. What matters is rigorously managing your attention, making mindfulness your touchstone. Scheduling something doesn’t mean you’ll do it, or, if you do, that you’ll reach your goals for the task.

That doesn’t mean you should blow off your to-do lists. They remain ideal organizers of tasks both daily and long-term. But rather than focus on traditional time management, focus on, well, focus:

  1. Prioritize your most important tasks. This seems reasonable, and I’ve probably said or written it hundreds of times. And people try. But I’ve seen many to-do lists that grew too long (more than 10-12 items) or that had most of the items marked as high priority. For example, let’s say you use the app, which allows you to mark your Priority 1-4 tasks with red, orange, blue, or white circles, respectively. That’s a great idea, but what do many people do? Mark almost everything red or orange (mostly red). And seriously, how do you complete 12-16 items in an 8- to 10-hour day, when several would take you a couple hours each? Most of the tasks would truly be blue or white tasks, which can fall off the list or move to another day anyway! These people have forgotten the purpose of prioritizing: to put the most significant tasks, including those due soonest, at the top of the list.

  2. Stop worrying so much about how much time each task takes. Just direct significant amounts of your attention to it until you’re done. You’ll finish everything important, though minor things may fall off the list. If you regularly have too much left over at the end of the day, either you’re doing it wrong, using too much detail, not trained well, not delegating enough, working on low priorities, or need to lighten the load.

  3. Know your cognitive limitations. Unless you’re very new to your career, you already know how much you can handle in terms of products and tasks, both with and without help. Some people just naturally have bigger plates than other people; accept that, and if you don’t already know the size of yours, think back about your past productivity and extrapolate from there. Consider the potential for information overload, too, because it short-circuits those limitations as it competes for your attention. Even watching the news can be overwhelming if you don’t know how to compartmentalize or let it just “roll off” you.

  4. Avoid distraction. If you have a door you can close to keep out the noise and distraction of other people, do so. Or put up a signal that you don’t wish to be disturbed. Maintain as steady a temperature in your workplace as you can. Listen to music or ambient noise with noise-cancelling earphones. Turn off your email alerts. Stay off the Internet. Do everything possible to keep from breaking the focus of your attention until you decide to come up for air.

  5. Tap into “the flow.” To some people, “the flow” sounds like some new-age way to access a mysterious spiritual energy. Not hardly. In this context, flow is simply a steady, continuous state of unbroken focus that continues until you’re ready to rise out of it. At some point, you’ve probably gotten so into something that when you looked up, you realized hours had passed. When you’re in the flow and your attention is focused on what’s most important in the moment, it’s easy to ignore distractions.

If a task is a priority, it requires blocks of your consciousness applied as deliberately and consistently as possible. You can put that meeting or deadline on your schedule; however, being organized won’t matter if you don’t focus on it enough to get it done.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

Here’s what others are saying:

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland