Managing your time won’t do you much good if you’re not able to manage where your mind wanders. And these days, there’s so much distraction flashing in our faces that if we don’t take an active approach to avoiding it, we might as well kiss our productivity goodbye.
But information overload isn’t the problem, says productivity expert Maura Thomas. “The problem is that not only is there too much information, we also have the technology that pushes that information into our lives, whether we want it or not,” she says. “Nobody walks into an Apple store, plops down 200 bucks, and says, ‘Here’s money so that people can interrupt me at any time.'”
Yet for many of us, that’s essentially what ends up happening. That’s why our attention, Thomas argues, has become our most valued commodity. “Attention is more valuable than money,” she says. “Before you can capture anybody’s business, you have to first get their attention.” And before you can get anything done in your day, you have to steel yourself against anything that might be angling to hijack your attention.
But where to begin? Fast Company spoke with Thomas about the distinction between time management and attention management, and how to better take control of your wandering mind in a world of information overload.
Time management mainly involves scheduling and prioritizing activities or events on your calendar. We can schedule our lives to the very second, but if we don’t actually keep distractions from coming in, a schedule won’t do us much good.
“Time management is an outdated idea. Attention is at the root of all of it. In the age of constant distraction, writing things on your calendar can’t compete with the millions of distractions,” says Thomas. “If you allotted 30 minutes in your calendar to do something and then spend that time going back and forth to email, text messages, and people coming into your office, you will have a much different experience than if you also managed your attention.”
If your job requires more from you than being in constant contact with people you work with–and that’s most of us–then there’s no question you should be setting aside chunks of time for uninterrupted work, says Thomas. While you probably can’t disconnect for the entire day, as little as 20 to 30 minutes of focused time can take you much further than two hours spent on the same task filled with constant interruptions.
If this seems impossible, just think of it from a hiring manager’s perspective. “When you’re interviewing people, you don’t ask them, ‘How many g-chats can you juggle at a time?'” says Thomas. “You hire them for their skills and knowledge.” The bottom line: Don’t let those skills and knowledge get shoved aside by constant interruptions and demands.
One good place to begin is resisting the urge to make email the first thing you tackle each day. Rather than sitting down at your desk and reflexively opening your inbox, take the time to get clear on what you need to accomplish that day, and start with the most important task on the list first. “Most people don’t have a plan for their day,” says Thomas. “They come into work and just do whatever happens. Whatever is in their messages determines their day.”
If your job priorities aren’t clear to you, spend time getting clear on them. Thomas calls these “role priorities” as opposed to “task priorities.” Role priorities are the whole reason you were hired or took on a job in the first place. They’re what makes you most valuable and skilled in your line of work. Spend time defining these two or three most relevant aspects of your job, advises Thomas. “Then hold that up to how you are spending your day,” she says. “How much of this communication is related to those top three most important things about your job?”
Ask yourself: How many different places do you keep track of various things you need to get done? Often our to-dos are scattered across different parts of our lives–in our heads, on a calendar, in email, on a task manager, scribbled on a notebook page or sticky note. But the result, says Thomas, is that people often become overwhelmed by the sheer number of places they need to check in order to figure out what needs to get done. With your priorities scattered across different places, it’s often easier to act impulsively and turn to the emails coming in, rather than surveying the big picture and deciding how best to allot your time. “Reacting is much faster and easier than trying to figure out what you’re actually supposed to do,” says Thomas. “When you’ve got six places to check, people say, ‘I’m just going to check my email because it’s right there.'”
Figuring out a way to manage your workflow so that everything you need to get done is contained in one place will make it easier to avoid being reactive to what’s streaming in your inbox. There’s a growing number of resources to choose from when it comes to workflow management, including David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Michael Linenberger’s Total Workday Control, Franklin Covey’s Five Choices to Productivity, and Thomas’s program called Empowering Productivity. At the root of them all is a similar goal: Managing everything you need to get done in one place.
Often we aren’t responding to emails so much as skimming them and deciding to respond later. Thomas calls this the “skim and skip” approach. “One big mistake people make is they think, ‘I’ll get to it later,’ but later never comes,” she says. “We end up with all these things piling up in our inboxes.”
And when it comes to communicating effectively at work, dropping the ball on a correspondence is never good form. Most people receive an average of 100 work emails a day, and it takes around two minutes on average to respond each message, says Thomas. Rather than taking two minutes every five minutes to respond to incoming messages, set aside chunks of time to take care of email en masse. “It’s important to spend time reading, processing, and dealing with your email messages,” says Thomas. “The rest of the time is spent getting things done.”