Did you know that February is Time Management Month? We’re two-thirds of the way through it and I finally got around to writing this story. Obviously I need help. And when I need productivity advice, I turn to Austin’s Maura Nevel Thomas — speaker, author of the book “Personal Productivity Secrets” and founder of RegainYourTime.com, a website that helps people manage the details of life and work.
Thomas responded to my plea promptly — no surprise there. But this did surprise me: “Encourage your readers to celebrate time management month by kicking time management to the curb,” she wrote, “because attention management is the skill they need now.”
Sorry, readers, my phone is buzzing. Stay right there.
Okay, I’m back.
No, wait … just let me get this e-mail. I’ll be right with you.
Okay, sorry. Where were we?
Oh, I remember. We have so many distractions available to us now that how we spend our time is only relevant to the extent that we also devote our attention to the task at hand, Thomas says. In other words, I could set aside an hour to work on this story, but if my attention is stolen every two minutes, how far am I going to get?
“That’s why time management is much less relevant than attention management,” Thomas explains. “How well can you control your attention?”
It can be difficult since many of us have screens in front of us constantly — computers, televisions, smartphones, tablets, even billboards (which increasingly rotate electronic messages) — and these screens are expertly used by marketers to steal our attention.
“Attention is the most valuable commodity in the period we live in,” Thomas says. “And our ability to control our attention — to focus — is the most valuable skill we can have.” Unless we practice focusing, we’ll never have the experiences we intend to have, because whatever captures our attention controls those experiences, she explains.
Thomas suggests we think about three areas in regards to controlling our attention:
- How well are we controlling the information that we receive?
Is there a lot of noise coming at you? Do you have the radio or television on while you work? Do you have a lot of email and snail mail piling up? “If you’re not doing a very good job of filtering the information that comes to you, you’re setting yourself up for distraction,” Thomas explains.
- Who’s the boss — us or our technology?
Most people Thomas knows never shut off their phones. “The most they’ll do is put them on vibrate,” she says. While that may keep calls and other alerts from disturbing others, it still disturbs the phone’s owner. Most people have their email open all the time; some folks have two computer monitors, one devoted exclusively to email. That’s a recipe for relinquishing control.
“We set ourselves up for distractions from our technology and we end up being slaves to it,” Thomas says. We keep the noise coming because we anticipate that whatever information we get next will be more interesting or important than whatever we’re dealing with at the moment. But those messages aren’t going anywhere, and if we put them aside for a while we can do a much better job on the task at hand by remaining focused.
“The biggest mistake we make is that we forget that our technology is for our convenience. We can control it,” she says.
- We’re often our own worst enemy.
We need to practice controlling our behavior, Thomas says. We can set our email so that it doesn’t automatically download, for example. This way, it only distracts us when we make a conscious decision to check it. “But if you can’t help clicking that send/receive button every five seconds, you haven’t gotten very far,” she explains.
Bad behaviors can become so habitual that we don’t even realize when we’re practicing them. To check herself, Thomas stops and asks herself three questions:
- Am I in control, or am I just being swept away by distractions?
- Am I making the best decisions about how I’m spending my time?
- Am I achieving significant results and making progress on things I have determined are important?
“Those three questions really help me to catch myself in those bad behaviors and kind of reset,” she says. “I think that we have created a society for ourselves where stopping to think is a luxury we feel like we can’t afford. And what does that say about us and the decisions we make? We’re just constantly reacting, and reacting is relinquishing control.”
For Thomas, who proudly wears the badge of control freak, it all comes back to control. The alternative, she points out, is chaos and helplessness.
Whoops, there’s the phone again. You know what? I think I’ll just let it go to voicemail and check it after I’ve filed this story. Control.