Many of us are reeling with the disruption being caused in our lives due to COVID-19. Moving to a remote work environment, worrying about friends and family on the frontlines fighting this pandemic, figuring out how to help homeschool our children, the list of concerns and to-dos seems never ending.
We have information and asks coming at us from every angle and our to-do lists are probably out the window before we get out of bed because we check our phones the moment we open our eyes. We try to juggle everything by managing our time, organizing our to-dos, red flagging everything important, and shutting our doors to the world in order to get things done, but we’re still buried with no way to dig out.
Why is that? No amount of time management will ever change the number of demands on our attention. We have the internal distraction of our constant inner monologue and the external distractions like our ever-present cell phone, never ending email inbox, and various family priorities.
It’s nearly impossible to manage the 24 hours in our day until we can learn to manage our attention. Attention is key to connecting with ourselves, others in our lives and our work. It leads to forward momentum because attention management controls our distractions, keeps us engaged in focused attention, and challenges us single task instead of multi-task.
Here are ten strategies you can use to manage your attention:
- Prevent leaks in your attention bucket by minimizing noise and other distractions when possible.
Our attention buckets are fragile, and holes can easily be poked in them if we’re not diligent about minimizing distractions. To keep it from leaking, try using noise cancelling headphones to drown out commotion in in a noisy environment. This might be a challenge in a home environment right now, so you could also try using earbuds or headphones while on a call only. This can help you concentrate during your essential focus time.
Also try changing how you read and respond to email. For example, turn off your email notifications to deter you from bouncing between answering emails and project work. You can also create rules in your email account to automatically file incoming email to specified folders. This keeps clutter down and you know where to look when you’re ready to read and answer those important communications.
Phones are another big distraction. Try switching your phone to silent or Do Not Disturb mode and check periodically for urgent messages. If you’re concerned with missing important calls, you can manage who is able to bypass the Do Not Disturb mode in your Contacts.
- Create a time budget to help you see where you spend your time and where you might need to spend more wisely.
Like a financial budget, start tracking where you’re currently spending your time. You might be surprised to see your time ledger! Once you have your baseline, establish your priorities, what’s most important to you. These priorities are your “Big Rocks” and should be placed in your attention bucket first. If you allow all the other “filler” tasks in your bucket first, you will run out of room for your big rocks.
- Use time blocks to group similar activities that require the same mindset.
Do this by thinking about how you work most effectively. Schedule your brain-intense work and during the time of day that you’re most focused. Then schedule your calls and meetings around that time.
- Schedule and keep appointments with yourself to work on priorities.
It can be difficult to complete a large project in only one to two-hour chunks of time. So, use your calendar as a tool and set a recurring meeting to block 4-8 hours for project work each week. This helps ensure you have time to complete priority projects or your “Big Rocks”.
This time might be easy enough to put on your calendar, but the hard part is actually keeping the appointments on your calendar. it’s incredibly important to guard this time and treat it like you would any other meeting or your time will quickly be filled up with not urgent or important items.
- Commit 15-20 minutes to preparing and planning for the upcoming week.
This time should be spent organizing, prioritizing and mapping out a path with clear next steps. The more you have going on, the more frequently you should take these breaks. This seems counterintuitive when your workload is overwhelming but stopping to get your bearings will further your progress much faster. If it helps, pull out Covey’s time management grid to help you prioritize what’s urgent, not urgent, important, and not important.
- Educate your team members by sharing with them what you’re doing and why.
Set boundaries in a clear way by making sure those you work closely with know why you’re making any visible changes, such as blocking your calendar, setting “office hours” for meetings, etc. You can also share any attention management tactics that you feel might benefit them.
- Use your avenues of communication effectively.
There are three types of communication. Synchronous communication is the most powerful type of communication because it is in person. It’s also the most expensive type of communication and should be used only when discussing complex or emotionally charged issues or to make important decisions. Should you choose to use this type of communication, be sure you keep it efficient and effective with four simple rules:
- Start and end on time
- Don’t use valuable face time for status reports
- Always have an agenda
- Try to keep the meeting to one hour or less
Email communication is considered Asynchronous and is much less expensive. This communication is best used when one person needs to convey an idea and others can respond at their convenience.
The third type of communication is a hybrid of Synchronous and Asynchronous communication, like instant messaging. One person is conveying a message, but the other person is expected to respond much quicker than they would to an email. This type of communication is effective for working both independently and collaboratively. It can, however, be distracting if it’s not used appropriately.
- Stop multi-tasking and start focusing on one thing at a time.
Multi-tasking is a myth. There is no such thing. Multi-tasking is actually cognitive switching – the process of unconsciously redirecting your attention from one thing to another. And it’s killing productivity! The more we juggle, the less effective we become due to the time and attention lost when mentally switching from one task to another. Not being able to focus for even minutes at a time may cost an organization as much as 20% of potential efficiency and productivity due to multitasking. Over a five-day work week, that’s a full day wasted. That’s just YOU. Multiply that by the number of people in your organization!
- Know when to stop by using the rule of diminishing return.
When we have a lot going on, we push ourselves to the limit to try get it all done. Up to a certain point, it pays to invest more time and effort. Then we reach that point of diminishing return where increased effort leads to a decreasing rate of return until we finally reach the point maximum yield. At this point, not only do we not get a return on our effort, we decrease our overall output! That is why it’s important to know ourselves well enough to step back before hitting our maximum yield.
- And finally, pay attention.
The philosopher William James was noted for saying, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” But with the increasing adoption of technology, often we don’t “agree” to attend to anything. We simply react to whatever happens to be buzzing, blinking, or vibrating in front of us.
So, when you feel the need to speed up or react, slow down instead. The simple act of slowing down and stepping back to redirect your attention can keep you calm, provide clarity, allow you to think through things and make better decisions.
There is no one right way to manage your attention. Try several of these approaches, give them time to fail or success, and stick with what works best for you.