Kick time management to the curb

Maura Nevel Thomas — №13 with Graham Allcott

“Time Management” is a twentieth-century term that has far outlived its usefulness. And, the longer people continue to frame their productivity in terms of time management, the less efficient they will be. Our problem isn’t having enough time to do everything. Instead the challenge is to learn how to regain control of our attention at specific times so that we can achieve our desired outcome: our significant results.

Defend Your Attention

How do you feel when you’re having coffee with a friend and she’s checking her email the entire time or texting with someone? Was this the visit you envisioned? Just because you’ve set aside time on your calendar to do something doesn’t mean you will always realize your intended outcome.

Your time only matters to the extent that you also apply your attention to the person, task or item in front of you. If you are distracted while completing a task, then your experience or result is likely to fall short of your intended goal. The real secret to defending against the constant demands on your attention is learning control. And the most important place for you to exert control is over your own attention.

When you control your attention, you control your life. Once you’ve mastered attention management, then you can more directly affect your productivity.

External Demands

The volume of information in the world and on the web is not the real problem — the real problem is that information is no longer passive: it demands our attention and action in ways that weren’t possible before current technology. We have the world at our fingertips – literally. Whether we’re on the computer, on the phone, on a smartphone or tablet, watching TV or standing in line at the store, there is something blinking, buzzing, talking or beeping at us.

When we constantly react to that information, we are working on other people’s priorities, and squeezing out our own. How do we manage the constant distractions? Let’s start with some tips for dealing with one of the biggest external demands — e-mail:

  1. Change your e-mail so the messages don’t automatically download, and only check it a few times per day. The benefits are that it puts you in control over your technology and communication by allowing you to review your message when you decide to, instead of being interrupted constantly. Now you are also focused on your email when you’ve planned time to react to what you might find in your in-box.

  2. Keep your phone on Airplane Mode when you need to concentrate on the task at hand. It works even on the ground and the ringing or downloads and their respective alerts will instantly stop, yet you’ll still have access to many of the tools you may need.

Internal Demands

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how we think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information thrown at us at all times. Multitasking is becoming the norm and many people believe “this is just the way it is now.” It doesn’t have to be this way.

Multitasking, or, more precisely, cognitive switching, is the act of constantly switching your attention among tasks and thoughts as they arrive. This has three major detrimental effects:

  1. Activities take longer
  2. The quality of your output is lower
  3. It contributes to your feelings of distraction and stress

Additionally, you aren’t giving yourself time to just sit and think. The brain needs quiet time to grab hold of an idea and let it ruminate, consciously or subconsciously. This idea is at the center of how we learn and grow as people. If information is constantly swirling in our heads then there are constant distractions standing in our way.

If you find yourself addicted to the fast-paced, multitasking, chaotic environment that you have created for yourself, you’ll benefit from thinking about how you can begin to change the behaviors that fuel this “addiction.” Limit your external demands and get your responsibilities out of your head where you can see them and therefore effectively manage them. Create lists that are actionable, by being specific about the action required, and organizing by the type of action, such as Projects vs. Next Actions vs. Waiting For.

Your Attention is your greatest asset. When you have a system that defends your attention and manages the information coming into your world, you are bound to enjoy the increased productivity that you earn along the way.

Photo: Flickr / toolstop CC BY 2.0

Maura thomas

Maura Nevel Thomas

Maura Nevel Thomas is the Chief Trainer and founder of, and author of the new book Personal Productivity Secrets: Do what you never thought possible with your time and attention… and regain control of your life.

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