Time management Monday: Managing attention

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We’ve all heard the saying, you can’t actually manage time. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. In today’s world of being constantly connected to communications, instant internet access, and working in open-plan offices, it can be argued that it’s more important to manage your attention.

Distractions are constantly pulling us away from the task at hand. It’s no longer common to have large chunks of time available for concentrated work. Instead our concentration is broken up by a steady stream of incoming messages and general office noise. For many business workers there is a work culture expectation of constant and instant availability. Even when you switch off your phone and put on your noise-cancelling headphones to concentrate on work, you may be distracted by the knowledge that once you make yourself available again you will have a pile of messages waiting for your immediate action.

How can we expect to get any work done in this environment? When can you ever have some quiet time to think, instead of constantly react?

You have to get ruthless about minimizing distractions. Here are some methods:

Forget about multitasking. Trying to do more than one thing at once is inherently distracting. When you are working on something, close all your other windows. Turn off your phone and email so you’re not tempted to check them.

Have designated communications times. Set an auto-reply on your email and your phone, if you can, to let people know when they can expect to hear back from you. This will minimize their frustration at not reaching you immediately, and reframes their expectation of when they will be able to communicate with you. Only use social media during designated breaks.

Get there early. Get to your office as early as you possibly can, so you can do your thinking work while it’s still relatively quiet. People I know who get to their offices before everyone else say they get more done in that first hour than they do the rest of the day.

Think first, do later. Schedule your thinking time when you are least distracted, usually early in the day and when you are not hungry. Plan what you are going to work on, write outlines, do research, make decisions. Then you’ll be prepared to crank through your work even when there are other things going on around you.

Focus on your priorities. During your above-mentioned thinking time, decide what your priorities are. Decide what are the most important things to accomplish today, this week, and this month. Work on those items first, so you can give them your best energy. Lower-priority items can be done at other times.

Seek a quiet spot. This can be difficult, especially if you work in an open-plan office. If your office has a conference room or other area with a door that closes, go in there when it’s not in use. Try to negotiate desk space as far away from the noisiest areas/ people in the room.

Take input-free down time. If you spend every moment of your day taking in information (such as spending all your break time on social media then getting right back to work) your brain will get information overload quickly. Take time during the day to have no input, so your brain can relax. That way you can go back to work refreshed and ready to focus.

What are your methods for minimizing distractions and focusing your attention?

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