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How to tap into your brain’s 4 attention states to get more done

Instead of using traditional time management techniques, we need to manage our attention and workflow.

How to tap into your brain’s 4 attention states to get more done
[Source images: Jolygon/iStock; Egor Suvorov/iStock]

From schedules to to-do lists, many of us plan our days around managing minutes and hours in an attempt to extract the most from each day. Focusing on time, however, is a flawed approach to productivity and won’t deliver the best results, says Maura Nevel Thomas, author of Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity – Every Day.

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“Traditional time management training was introduced decades ago into a work world that no longer exists,” she says. “Back then, people had offices with a door. We didn’t have email, and technology was a typewriter or a dumb terminal. Those days are gone. Today the volume of distractions is off the charts. We have smartphones, and every year we get an additional critical communication tool like Slack that is pushed to our devices. Even if we can manage the distractions, we’re drowning in the amount of communication we have.”

While it feels natural to believe the path to productivity is by focusing on time management, but that’s an idea from the past that doesn’t serve us well anymore, says Thomas. Instead, we need to manage our attention and workflow.

“You can’t control time, but you can control your attention,” she says. “We can all improve productivity if we can systemize the way we work. Instead of looking for the latest tips and tricks, we need to work on attention and workflow management to improve productivity. This involves a collection of behaviors, not done by an app or software.”

To practice attention management, Thomas says you need to understand your four brain states and how they impact your productivity:

  1. Reactive and Distracted: This state is superficial, says Thomas. Your attention is divided and you may be trying to multitask. You work with several computer windows open and are receptive to drop-in interruptions. Thomas says this our the typical state at work, but we’re often unaware of how distracted we are.
  2. Daydreaming: This state is when you are choosing not to focus on anything in particular, says Thomas. We have little external stimulus, and we are letting our minds wander. Thomas says this state is restorative for your brain. The best use of daydreaming is in those in-between moments, such as waiting in line or walking to an appointment. The key is to not take out your phone to fill them, says Thomas.
  3. Focused and Mindful: This state is where you’re fully present and deliberately avoiding distraction. You need to make an effort to maintain attention for an extended period of time. An example of being focused and mindful would be when you’re in a job interview, doing a thoughtful task or creative activity, or watching a movie at a theater.
  4. Flow: If you’re lucky, your brain can tip from focused and mindful into flow, says Thomas. This is a state and not a behavior, she says. It’s when you’re laser-focused and fully absorbed in a task. You are disengaged from your sense of self and work is effortless. The flow state happens when you’re doing something you’re good at or trained for, says Thomas.

Using the four states

The ultimate goal of attention management is to recognize which brain state you’re in and then shifting to the one that will help you produce your best results in that moment, says Thomas. Each of the four brain states has a related amount of attention and effort or control.

For example, if you are in a reactive and distracted state while you’re trying to work on a project, you won’t be able to get traction. This state is not conducive to focused work. But if you can recognize that’s where you are, you can take steps to move into a focused or mindful state, says Thomas.

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Reactive and distracted requires no attention, but to move into a focused and mindful state, you must take control of your environment. Close the door and put your phone on silent, suggests Thomas. If you are in an open office, use a sign that signals your availability or wear noise-canceling headphones. You may also be able to work in an empty conference room, outside on bench, or from home, depending on the nature of your work.

“You need to exert control and effort over your attention,” says Thomas. “When we are reactive and distractive, we are exerting no control.” If you stay focus and mindful for long enough, your brain might tip you into a flow state. “We do not have control over this,” she says. “Flow is effortless.”

The daydreaming state involves a low level of attention but requires a high amount of control, says Thomas. “This is where you don’t want to focus the mind, but instead see where it ends up,” she says. “This state is when you process and consolidate information that we have taken in, moving it into long-term memory so we can access it later. The key is to not reach for a device. Resist the urge. We need discipline to enter it, which is a workflow management skill.”

With the exception of the flow state, we have the ability to decide which state we enter, says Thomas. “Most of us stay in the reactive and distracted state all day long,” she says. “Distracted is the nature of our work environment these days. But there are times when you may want to choose it. A manager may take time to walk out from your office into the bullpen where your team is located, playing traffic cop, or shifting from one topic to the next.”

Find balance in all four states

All four states are helpful to productivity, but they may not be needed in equal parts. Thomas suggests creating a brain-state estimate that matches your line of work.

“If you were promoted to CEO and were hiring someone to replace you, determine ideally what percent of time you think the person would need to spend in each quadrant to do your job well,” she says. “Everybody will need to be focused and undistracted at times. For most, flow will be a useful state, and the mind wandering state is useful for creativity and insights.”

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Assess a rough percentage you should stay in each quadrant; it will give you some guidelines of how to spend your day. For example, if you decide you should spend 40% of your time focused and undistracted, you may decide to work from home two days a week, says Thomas.

“Attention management skills are critical to taking back control,” she says. “They allow you to refocus your day on your priorities, so you can make progress on meaningful work instead of reacting to every incoming [demand] on your attention.”

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