Why Leadership Experts Are Turning to Attention Management

If the wizarding world of Harry Potter was applicable to Muggle world skills, using a Time-Turner would be the equivalent of becoming proficient at time management. At some point in your life, you have probably tried to improve your time management skills in an effort to advance your career or have more time for fun. Who wouldn’t want to get everything on their to-do list done in a day?

However, there is growing criticism of time management by management experts including Maura Thomas and Adam Grant, who propose attention management as a more effective alternative.

attention management

What is attention management?

Thomas defines attention management as the ability to control your distraction and maximize your focus, to be present in your moments, engage your flow, and unleash your genius.”

For a slightly different take, Grant defines attention management as “the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments… Prioritize the people and projects that matter, and it won’t matter how long anything takes.”

Essentially, attention management is comprised of a process that starts with understanding your interests, why you have these interests, how you best get things done, and then using this information to accomplish more meaningful work.

Be more efficient, got it. How do I do this if I live off of Google Calendar?

Attention management does not propose that you negate time constraints altogether. Rather, it suggests that you focus on why you are completing your task instead of how long it should take you.

Time management is “playing defense:” we reactively block and tackle the tasks and information thrown at us.

Thomas suggests that attention management is playing offense: “to plan, organize, and make thoughtful choices about what gets our attention.”

Grant suggests starting by paying attention “to what consumes your attention” as well as when and where your attention is consumed. For example, you are probably familiar with reprimanding yourself for lacking the willpower to get work done. However, as you have likely noticed, attempting to “grind through” a task does not always work. Attention management advocates for adjusting your attitude instead of blaming your willpower. If you shift your focus to why you started a project, you will be more intrinsically motivated to complete it.

 Grant also suggests paying attention to the times and places in which you are the most efficient. For example, if you live in Chicago you might have noticed that you were especially productive last month when we experienced an all day snow storm in late April; there was no temptation to be outside and less distraction from work. Or perhaps you are more like me and were less productive because you stayed home all day and got distracted by your new pasta maker that was essentially taunting you to use it.

Regardless of how that day went, it was probably informative of when and where you like to work. This can change depending on what you’re doing. Maybe you are more creatively inspired at home but get more “grunt work” done in an office setting with fewer distractions. Maybe this is different from your co-worker’s preferences. What gets your attention and what works for you is unique.

What you dislike is also unique

Stop for a second and think about some tasks at work or at home that you have been avoiding because you do not want to do them. Pick one. Why are you doing this task? Maybe it’s a work project that you find either difficult or monotonous. Are there other aspects of your job that make doing this task worth it? Do you have bigger goals that make it worth having this job? Find your reason why. Once you have found your why, think about the when and the where.

Here’s a real-life example: Grant and his colleague Jihae Shin ran a study and found that when employees were first given tasks that they perceived as highly interesting, they performed worse on subsequent tasks that they perceived as boring. Takeaway: if you have the autonomy to choose the order in which you work or where you work, you can start to practice attention management by noticing when you have the most attention for both tasks you do and do not enjoy.

If you don’t have the ability to choose the order of your work, think about the scenarios in which you have the most energy for work that you do not enjoy. For example, I’ve learned that if I work out in the morning and focus solely on my current task rather than other more appealing projects, then I am more likely to complete the task quickly.

So, what would you do with extra time?

Let’s go back to that Time-Turner. Let’s say you’ve obtained one and you now have the power to turn back the time to get ahead on all of your projects and finally get adequate sleep. What would you do with your newfound time? Would you then feel fulfilled?

Your answers probably can give you some indication about your values and priorities. Maybe they don’t align with what you’re doing now—that’s okay! The great thing about attention management is that it allows you to find mindsets, times and places that can not only make you more efficient, but also help you to find more enjoyment in the process of your work


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About Alyssa Yoshino

Alyssa hails from sunny Tucson, Arizona where she developed a love for training in volleyball and track. After graduating from Claremont McKenna College where she studied molecular biology and economics, she ventured to colder climate to take a job as an analyst for a healthcare technology startup in Chicago. During this time she found a sense of purpose and community within her own CrossFit training. She then decided to pursue coaching full-time as a way to promote preventative healthcare and to help empower others. She currently coaches CrossFit and conditioning at Wells Street Fitness. When she is not training, she is watching The Office, justifying the purchase of another pair of shoes to herself, or unsuccessfully trying to convince her friends to go sing karaoke.