How to stop managing your time and start managing your attention
Woman making a to-do list

We all struggle with checking every single item off our to-do lists. Keeping a calendar and planning out what we’d ideally like to accomplish each day is a great place to start. And sure, they sort of work. They’re a fairly reliable way of at least getting what we hope to get done into a timeline for when we hope to do it.

But life doesn’t always cooperate. Aside from the kids getting sick, the dog throwing up, or the car breaking down right when your “scheduled” activity was about to start, it doesn’t accommodate for a more important factor: are we in the right headspace to do that exact thing at that exact time? Probably not.

That’s why managing your attention — when it’s strong, when it’s weak, and when you need it most to get certain things done well — is a more effective and overall life-enhancing method to tackle your tasks. It has the added benefit of setting you up for success and helping make sure that you don’t just get things done, but that you also get them done well.

Trying to “manage your time” is hurting more than helping

We live in a productivity-obsessed society where getting more things done is seen as a sign of accomplishment. There’s pressure to jam pack as much as we can into each available hour. This quantity-over-quality approach has three major weak points:

1.      It doesn’t help make sure that the most important things get done

2.      It doesn’t help make sure that we’re doing things to the best of our abilities

3.      It make us feel bad

The opposite of time management is attention management. It’s about planning how to do the right things at the right time. In this case, the “right time” isn’t when you had it scheduled, but when you’ve aligned your skills, personality and amount of free time for when you’re the most capable to take on that unique task.

Prioritize to decide what really matters to you

Nobody can do everything and be everywhere all at once. And when everything is equally important, then nothing is truly important.

Before you can know the best ways to spend your attention, your first need to identify what’s really important in the first place. A tried-and-true approach to prioritization is the Eisenhower Matrix. Created by the former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it categorizes all your tasks into four buckets:

1.      Urgent and important

These are key tasks with a hard deadline — things that absolutely must happen today or are being controlled by someone else, like our bosses or our kids’ school.

2.      Not urgent but important

This is the stuff that usually gets put off, but to the detriment of our happiness – things like time with our kids, a romantic date with our partner, or solo time to focus on our own health and well-being.

3.      Urgent but not important

Beware, all ye who enter here. This bucket includes most of the daily attention holes that end up swallowing our attention because they seem urgent but don’t actually mean all that much. Think of last-minute interruptions, email overload, meetings that could have been emails, and so on.

4.     Not urgent and also not important

Possibly the best bucket of the four, because anything you can honestly classify here lets you acknowledge that it has no real purpose or benefit, and that you can just let it go and never do it.

Once your list is prioritized, you can match items to your attention based on when they actually need to get completed and in the order that will have the biggest positive impact on your life.

Remind yourself of your “why”

Sometimes our productivity struggles aren’t due to a lack of skill or time, but a lack of motivation. If we can’t easily identify the core meaning or value we get from a task, it can feel easier to put it off.

Occasionally we’ll realize that a task falls into the not urgent or important bucket #4, and we can blissfully decide to cross it off our list forever. Other times, it could be something that is deeply personal or emotionally fraught and so, while it matters a lot, we’ve lost sight of the main reason why we want to do it and the accompanying motivation has gone out the window.

The next time you come across a task that you just don’t feel like doing, ask yourself who it will benefit. How would it make them feel, and, consequently, how would their reaction make you feel?

●      Thank you cards for a gift: Think of how happy and appreciated grandma will feel when you finally thank her for that toaster. Completing the task will make you feel like you’ve shown love and respect.

●      Finishing that work project you hate: Think of who will ultimately benefit from the long-term impact, not just how it will benefit you. Will it help a coworker or make someone’s life better?

Take a blank slate week and learn about your natural attentions

We like to think that we have a pretty good idea of where our strengths and weaknesses lie. On the flip side, many of us approach how to get things done from the lens of what we’re not: I’m not a morning person, I’m not energetic after lunch, I’m not patient in the evening, and so on. These might be true, but do you know this because you’ve tested and tried them, or just because you’ve assumed them based on some long-standing ideas you have about yourself?

After you’ve prioritized your tasks and given them a core value, give yourself an open week where nothing is scheduled. You’ll have your list of tasks but don’t try to manage your attention at all. Wake up, look at everything in bucket #1 and allow yourself to naturally do the thing that you want to. Don’t want to do any of them? Look at bucket #2. In this instance, you’re learning that in the morning your attention is naturally tuned to some of those important but seemingly non-urgent tasks around fostering relationships and doing things with those you love. Perfect!

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll leave no time for the importance and urgent bucket #1 tasks, it means you’ve learned something valuable about your natural inclinations and when your attention is primed to do the right task at the right time.

Continue throughout the day, keeping a journal of what you felt like doing when, why it appealed to you at that instant, and how successful it was. Once you’ve got a solid idea of how you work best, get back to scheduling tasks by the hour but try carving out big blocks rather than individual tasks at a particular time. If your own personal audit showed you that you’re good at completing complex work tasks in the afternoon, block off 12pm-5pm but don’t specifically choose any order. This way you’re managing your attention strategically but still giving yourself freedom to adapt and adjust to your mood that day. 

Jeremy Elder is a Toronto-based content marketer and copywriter with over a decade’s experience telling stories for some of the world’s biggest brands. He’s an expert at finding WiFi wherever you least expect it.

Jeremy Elder is a paid Sonnet spokesperson.
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