Manage attention, not time
When we talk about productivity, most of us define it in relation to time - how much we achieve in an hour, a day, a week. Yet when it comes to maximizing our individual or team productivity, a focus on tightly optimizing time can lead to gains in the short term, but rarely are those gains sustainable.
When we try to optimize every minute of every day, we treat our attention and energy as fixed. Yet we all know that isn’t true.
Some of us are night owls who gain focus once the sun dips, while for others, creativity soars early in the day. Maybe there are people who can focus well after lunch, though I have yet to meet one. If we slept poorly, didn't exercise, exercised too intensely, didn’t see the sun, caught a cold, drank too little coffee, drank too much coffee, skipped breakfast, or, most annoyingly, woke up in a brain fog for no discernible reason at all, our attention may slump. Or maybe we simply started the day with a deeply focused and challenging project, and by lunch, our brains are fried.
Our energy and attention fluctuate massively throughout the day and week. Despite what we see on productivity centric YouTube, trying to constantly perform at the razor’s edge of optimized time leaves most of us mere mortals feeling unproductive and unsatisfied.
How is attention management different from time management
Traditional time management can mistakenly liken our calendars to a game of Tetris. Tasks and meetings get tightly squeezed back-to-back, having us jumping from one unrelated task to another.
But how does this look different if we plan based on our attention?
It doesn’t mean we do less, but instead, we build our weeks and days to include:
- Uninterrupted focused time
- A balanced cognitive load
- Minimized context switching
When we do this effectively, we’re better able to focus on the task at hand, more efficient, and less prone to mistakes, and ultimately, we deliver better work.
Four practices for attention management planning
1. Carve out uninterrupted focus time
Often, complicated tasks require deep focus and concentration. When we try to tackle things like detailed QA, coding, and design mock-ups in small chunks of time, that work will take longer and be more prone to errors.
Instead, when we set aside a block of protected work time, we give ourselves a chance to get into a state flow, deeply focusing on the task at hand. It’s amazing what can be accomplished in 90-120 minutes of flow state, compared to 4 separate 30 minute blocks of time.
When scheduling the time, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be that long. Some people can focus and flow on particularly creative tasks for up to 4 hours, but for most work, 2 hours will be enough and attention will start to dwindle soon after. Ideally, these focused blocks should be scheduled based on when you tend to be your sharpest, be it first thing or at the end of the day.
The key is focus. If that time gets chipped away by Discord and Slack notifications, emails popping up, or even just colleagues dropping by, flow will break. Regaining focus after each interruption is shockingly slow, with some estimates being 23 minutes to get back into focused work.
Blocking the time in your calendar to prevent meetings from being scheduled, turning off all notifications, and going into DND mode can help defend that time.
2. Balance cognitive load
Certain tasks carry a higher cognitive load then others. Development work often requires high cognitive load tasks such as debugging, problem-solving, and coding, which require intense focus and concentration.
These efforts deplete our mental energy stores, and if we try to do too many sequentially, our performance will decline.
Taking breaks will improve sustained productivity by easing context switching and helping us recharge and reset before the next thing.
These breaks are most effective when we step away from our computers. Perhaps walk in the sun for 10 minutes, read a book, eat a meal. When we give ourselves these times to properly disconnect from the task we were just working on, the more we are protecting our energy.
Additionally, a day or a week can be structured to balance high cognitive load efforts with easy ones. If for instance, you start the day with a block of deep focused work, this may pair well with an afternoon of meetings, admin or routine work. Try to batch like tasks that don’t require deep concentration and pulse them into your calendar between hard work efforts.
3. Minimize context switching
We all know by now that multi-tasking is a fallacy. Similarly, frequent task switching breaks and depletes our attention. Whether it’s moving from one task to an unrelated one quickly and frequently, managing interruptions, or trying to squeeze in work between meetings, all that context-switching takes its toll.
Sometimes context switching is unavoidable, but certain practices can help. Batching like-tasks together for instance helps us stay in a rhythm.
Probably the highest impact way to reduce context switching however comes from changing how and when meetings get scheduled. Rather than having meetings scattered throughout the day, work with your team to schedule meetings so that they are stacked one after another or bookending the day.
4. Be flexible
Some days, everything will flow. And on those days, you may want to extend your focus time by 30 minutes. Other days, you simply might not feel as sharp. Rather than spinning on a cognitively demanding task, these might be the days to tackle low hanging fruit, then come back ready, when you feel recharged.
Monitoring fluctuations in your energy and attention will not only help you identify when to adjust your schedule, but it will also help uncover patterns that will inform planning in the future.