Your Attention Investment Portfolio
February 29, 2012 by Kay Grossman

When we talk about “time management,” most of us refer to the daily challenge of getting things done. In the midst of many competing demands, we struggle to move through our to-do lists. We often end the day feeling like we didn’t come up for air, and we still didn’t accomplish what we’d wanted to accomplish. There is never enough time.

It seems that the solution is to hone our time management skills. Yet, due to its nature, time is completely unmanageable. It tick, tick, ticks away no matter what we think or do. It’s no wonder that our attempts to manage time fail.

The “time management” solution is not about managing time. Rather, it’s about managing ourselves, and more specifically, about managing our attention. Many wiser people before me have asserted that what we pay attention to determines the essence of our reality, let alone what we accomplish in the course of a day.

Pulled to sparkly, noisy, easy, novel, urgent

Yet, in our distraction-filled modern world, it is not easy to focus attention in productive ways. Our attention is naturally pulled to the sparkly, the noisy, the easy, the novel, and the urgent – mostly without our conscious assent. We inadvertently give away our precious, finite commodity of attention.

The solution, then, is to consciously choose where to pay attention, to bring intention to the act of attending. Neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg perfectly captures this phenomenon:

“The best defense against the manipulation of our attention is to determine for ourselves—in advance—how we want to invest it.”
— Elkhonon Goldberg

Goldberg’s words merit parsing. Let’s start with “invest,” which implies that there is both value and cost to the allocation of attention. In fact, we implicitly acknowledge that attention is finite and valuable by the ways we talk about it. We give attention, or pay attention. We hold a sense that it is a limited resource.

The opportunity cost of attending to this over that

And we are correct. We can truly pay attention to only one idea or complex task at a time. As William James, considered by many to be the father of modern psychology, famously said about attention, “… It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” There is an opportunity cost for attending to one thing over another.

Goldberg’s use of “manipulation” also deserves comment. From the subtle allure of “buy-me-too” application icons on smartphones to the more startling interruptions of blaring TV commercials, advertisers know how to grab our attention. They capitalize on our natural propensity to seek novelty and to react to our senses.

Our brains… primed for distraction!

These same natural tendencies, if we are not consciously aware of them, virtually manipulate us on their own, as well. Our attention moves effortlessly from the task at hand to incoming email and text alert tones, the ringing phone, ancillary conversations, the pile of papers on the desk, and to our own random thoughts. Knowing that our brains are primed for distraction and will take the path of least resistance or effort whenever possible, gives us the power to intentionally take control, or as Goldberg says, “determine for ourselves” what to pay attention to.

Goldberg’s highlighting of “in advance” sets the stage for solutions. I suggest the following actions as components of your “attention investment portfolio.”

  1. Find a calendar that suits your needs. Whether you prefer paper or a smartphone application, find a calendar that you can easily access throughout the day.
  2. Use your calendar as your attention investment guide. Commit fifteen minutes every morning to determining where you will allocate your attention that day. Schedule all tasks you intend to complete, giving them the “time-space” you anticipate they’ll need. Remember, anything that requires your attention, also requires time. Be sure to schedule planning and pre-task preparation activities.
  3. Ask yourself what is urgent and important to help you determine what merits your attention. Why? What else is important to attend to today? How does this task move something forward in a way that matters to me, my organization, or someone I care about?”
  4. Establish routines for repetitive activities, such as starting and ending the day and for managing a range of processes at work. Routines require less active attention, freeing you to allocate more attention to deeper problem-solving and creative thought.
  5. Schedule a weekly review of upcoming commitments and obligations. How do they fit within your overall personal and professional goals and core values? What merits high priority for the coming week? What can be scheduled for another time? What can be eliminated altogether?
  6. Reduce distractions and interruptions in your environment. Turn off email and text alerts, and let your phone go to voicemail while you engage in a project. Limit email and phone responses to two or three scheduled sessions per day. Schedule recurring meetings with people who need your frequent attention.
  7. Identify tasks that consistently drain or bore you. Delegate them to someone with greater interest or expertise.
  8. Don’t say “yes” to requests from other people until after you have referred to your calendar to determine if or when there will be enough time for you to fully attend to them.
  9. Honor other people by giving them your full attention. Turn off all mobile devices during meetings and meals.
  10. Honor yourself by giving most of your attention to high value activities that capitalize on your interests and strengths.

Start your attention investment process by running an inventory check of your current practices. What have you already acquired in your attention investment portfolio? Which of the above strategies do you already use? What would you like to tweak or to add?

Give dedicated focus to one new strategy at a time. The value of your portfolio will increase as you trend toward more conscious use of attention. You might start each day by asking yourself, “Where do I want to invest my attention today?” and end with, “How did my attention investments pay off? Do I want to divest, diversify, or invest similarly tomorrow?”

Manage your most precious commodity – attention

Rather than attempt to manage time, which is inherently unmanageable, manage your most precious commodity – attention. Invest it where it will bring you the greatest returns. Plan ahead, use supportive strategies and tools, and allocate most of your attention to the people and activities that bring satisfaction, meaning, and joy to your life. Your attention investment portfolio will become priceless.

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