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Manage Attention, Not Time

February 23, 2015

Steven Covey says prioritization is easy.

In his world, we have demands on your time. These fall into two groups: urgent tasks and important tasks. You have to decide what to do next, so you split things up along these dimensions. Next, you plan in order to make time for important and non-urgent things, you do the urgent and important things now and you simply never do the non-urgent, non-import things.

Simple and clear. But this simple model is simplistic. We rarely fill our to-do lists with unimportant, non-urgent tasks. Further, and more interesting, demands on our time don’t usually fall neatly along a single dimension of value.

Let’s back up a minute and see if we can identify one true thing to start us off. Maybe try this: it does seem true that you can do only one thing next. Don’t counter with multitasking–that’s only a statement about how long you will spend on the next thing. So can we be more careful to define the limited resource?

You might still be tempted to answer time, and it is true you have only one day’s worth of time in one day. But that hardly seems useful, or even relevant since it is inflexible and everyone has exactly the same time. In this real sense time is bounded and contextually relevant–but it is not really a resource. Contrary to idiomatic usage you don’t “find time” or “make time” or “lose time.” It can’t be bought or traded or bargained for. Time happens no matter what. And it happens to everyone equally, so you can’t gain advantages or fall behind by managing time.

However, you can direct your attention. And I propose, this is what you actually manage, this is what you plan to use when you create your schedule and prioritize tasks. This is what you lose when you waste time. You don’t manage time except abstractly, a layer or so away. You can only put your attention on something, or not.

When you feel like you get ahead by “making time” or “work efficiently” you are talking about feeling good about how you used your attention. You aren’t saying anything about time.

Second, you can choose your energetic investment. You might direct all of your resources to one thing, but spend only a limited amount on another.

I mean this broadly in terms of your physical activity, your talents, your money and even the attention of your friends. You may choose to direct a high flow of energy toward a very important task such as finding a lost child or a promotion at work. You may take a more leisurely attitude when cleaning the garage on Sunday afternoon.

Energy flow is a bit more subtle than attention because it flows in as well as out. Some activities are credits and some are debits. A 30 minute run 3 days a week can allow you to put more energy into concentration tasks, might help you sleep better, or keep your heart healthy, keeping your attention off hospitals and hypertension medications. On the other hand, an argument with your spouse might divert your attention or lower your energy for other projects for hours. Managing energy is a trick of flows–some activities energize while others drain. You have to figure this out for yourself.

What you manage when you have good time-management skills is your attention and energy.

One note about external demands here–no one can make you focus your attention or apply your energy to anything. We regularly chose to submit our attention and energy to others. Sometime we feel like we have no choice. We feel a lot of pressure to satisfy the expectations of spouses, children, bosses, but this is always a choice. So be careful when you are making bad exchanges–they are always your responsibility.

Manage time, manage attention, so what, you still have to prioritize. What have we learned about why prioritization is harder than we assume? That’s for the next post.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 23, 2015 8:07 pm

    Years ago, I developed the habit of putting absolutely everything on my to-do list, a la Getting Things Done. I’ve discovered, though, that even at the to-do list scale, important things can be drowned out by the multitude of little things.

    Planning on turning my attention, soon, to Elements of Statistical Learning, Chapter 7. Any time now.


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