One of the best insights on what true productivity means in the 21st century dates back to 1890. In his book The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1, William James wrote a simple statement that’s packed with meaning: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”
Your attention determines the experiences you have, and the experiences you have determine the life you live. Or said another way: you must control your attention to control your life. Today, in a world where so many experiences are blended together — where we can work from home (or a train or a plane or a beach), watch our kids on a nanny-cam from work, and distraction is always just a thumb-swipe away — has that ever been more true?
To be consistently productive and manage stress better, we must strengthen our skill in attention management.
Attention management is the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximizing focus so that you can unleash your genius. It’s about being intentional instead of reactive. It is the ability to recognize when your attention is being stolen (or has the potential to be stolen) and to instead keep it focused on the activities you choose. Rather than allowing distractions to derail you, you choose where you direct your attention at any given moment, based on an understanding of your priorities and goals.
Better attention management leads to improved productivity, but it’s about much more than checking things off a to-do list. The ultimate result is the ability to create a life of choice, around things that are important to you. It’s more than just exercising focus. It’s about taking back control over your time and your priorities.
The leaders I work with tell me, “I believe in the power of mentoring and coaching my team members. The most important thing I can do as a leader is to support them and encourage their growth. This is how I make a difference, and it’s what gives me satisfaction at work.”
But later in our conversation, I hear how their days actually go: “I spend a big chunk of my time on email and putting out fires. I started the year with a coaching plan for my team, but it’s fallen by the wayside amid everything else that is going on. My one-on-ones with team members don’t happen as often as I would like, and the content is too much ‘trees’ and not enough ‘forest.’”
Even if you see yourself as a passionate advocate for coaching and mentoring, you won’t have the impact you’d like if your actions and experiences don’t reflect these values. As James said, your experience is what you attend to. And your experiences become your life. So if your attention continues getting diverted, and email, meetings, and “firefighting” consume your days, pretty soon weeks or months will have gone by and your life becomes full of the “experiences” you never really intended to have.
So why don’t we just have the experiences we want to have, and create the lives we most want to lead? Why does this painful gulf exist between the selves we aspire to and how we spend our time?
The fact that James was thinking about this topic in the 19th century shows that we’ve long wrestled with the conflict between our goals and values and the lure of distractions. But, of course, we live in a world with many more distractions than existed in the 1890s. When he published The Principles of Psychology, the telephone was brand-new. Today, we have internet-connected phones and other devices that are always with us, delivering a volume of information and communication James couldn’t have imagined. There’s a lot more competition for our attention.
Let’s go back to our mentoring and coaching example. You could start each day intending to focus on developing your team. But those intentions can quickly get swept away in the rush of demands that characterize our workdays.
In this frenzied work environment, accomplishing the things that are most meaningful to you doesn’t just happen. You can’t leave it to chance. Your busy environment presents choice after choice every day about what you will attend to — and what your experiences will be.
This is where attention management offers a solution. It’s a deliberate approach that puts you back in control. Practising attention management means fighting back against the distractions and creating opportunities throughout your day to support your priorities. First, control external factors:
But here’s an overlooked truth: Our productivity suffers not just because we are distracted by outside interruptions, but also because our own brains, frazzled by today’s frantic workplaces, become a source of distraction in and of themselves.
For example, the problem isn’t just that an email interrupts your work. It’s also the fact that being tethered to your email inbox conditions you to expect an interruption every few minutes, which chips away at your attention span. You then become so afraid of forgetting to do some small task — like sending an email or forwarding a document — that you start to do everything as soon as you’ve thought of it; but then you end up getting sucked into your overflowing inbox before you know it. Moreover, knowing that you have a catalogue of all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips — in terms of the internet on your smartphone — makes it difficult to be comfortable in a state of “I don’t know,” and hard to avoid the distracting temptation to “find out now.”
So you must also learn to control internal factors.
Practising attention management will not eliminate distractions from your day. But as you start to recognize when you become distracted, and build your “attention muscle” through habits like those above, you’ll start to reclaim your life and devote more of yourself to what’s really important to you. Don’t allow distraction to derail your aspirations and intentions. Instead, control your attention to control your life.
This article was originally written by Maura Thomas, who is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity, attention management, and work-life balance. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of RegainYourTime, and author of Personal Productivity Secrets and Work Without Walls. She frequently appears in major business outlets and was named one of the Top Leadership Speakers of 2018 in Inc. Magazine. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.