The Key to Success Lies in Managing One's Attention, Not Time

CC BY 2.0. Virtual Wolf

Scheduling does little to boost productivity if you're constantly distracted by low-value activities.

I have a bad habit while working. Sometimes, when I reach a mental roadblock and am not sure how to proceed with my writing, I take a break. But usually this 'break' consists of flipping to a new screen on my computer or unlocking my phone to glance at social media feeds, check my email, or look at the weather. After a few guilty minutes, I go back to face the problem. It has not gone away, nor am I better prepared to fix it. Instead, it takes considerable effort to refocus, remind myself where I was going, and figure out a solution.

This less-than-ideal habit is a classic example of an 'attention management problem', which Srinivas Rao, in an article for Quartz, says is what people actually mean when they say they have a 'time management problem.' Most people don't lack time, just self-discipline. Their minds are too easily seduced by distractions. Five or ten minutes here and there may not seem like much, but it adds up over the course of a day and compromises productivity.

Rao believes that the way in which people handle distractions and choose to allocate their attention is the difference between highly successful people and less successful ones. He writes:

"A key habit I’ve noticed among successful people is that they are ruthless in avoiding these distractions. Instead, they intentionally manage what they pay attention to."

He makes a good point. It's true that many of the people who complain most about not having enough time throughout the day are the same ones who post multiple photos to Instagram, comment on Twitter frequently, and like all their friends' photos on Facebook. Those are all time-eaters.

These activities come at a psychological cost, which Rao describes as the 'attention currency paradox':

"Whatever requires less of your attention costs more in terms of cognitive load, while what requires more costs you less."

In other words, when you give your attention to meaningful , deep work (writing, reading, thinking, discussing, etc.), it costs you little in terms of lost productivity, most likely increasing it. Shallow work, by contrast, has a "high opportunity cost in terms of lost productivity and is likely to make you less productive for longer periods of time."

So, what's the solution?

Rao gives a number of suggestions for avoiding attention traps. Among them are these gems that I plan to adopt:

-- Pushing toward highest value work
These are the activities that push you toward end goals, earn the most money, or provide the greatest satisfaction. These should be an immediate priority and other less important tasks should be outsourced whenever possible. This means no more answering emails at 5:30 a.m. when I could be writing my best stuff.

-- Avoiding multitasking
The research has shown time and again that there is no such thing as multitasking. One might be skilled at switching back and forth rapidly (I feel like every mother of multiple young children is), but it drains productivity like nothing else. A bit of focus seeps away every time you switch activities. This means no more personal social media throughout the day.

-- Embracing downtime
It's easier to focus on work and push hard if you have a designated time for mental rest. I'm getting better at this, taking occasional walks and keeping my evenings free for reading, a movie, or conversation with my husband. Come morning, I feel recharged for work.