The new paradigm of managing tasks with attention

Part 1

Research shows that people spend almost 47 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. In other words, many of us operate on autopilot."Matt Killingsworth in his 2011 TED talk

This statistic is quite revelatory and innocuously scary. What this means is that our minds are constantly wandering, almost 50% of the time, when we are ideally supposed to be focused on what we are doing. There is also research that proves that mind-wandering is also tied to lower states of happiness. This is a double whammy for our well-being and productivity. 

Another scary study by Microsoft showed that since the year 2000, which also coincides with the mobile revolution, the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds and it is trending down further.

It is quite clear from these researched-backed insights, that the new paradigm for productivity has to be attention management.

“As long as we phrase our path to productivity in terms of managing time, we’re always going to be behind the eight-ball” says Maura Thomas, a productivity expert and author of Attention Management

Seeing the problem clearly, we need to address it by looking at two key aspects of attention management. One is what we choose to pay attention to at the macro-level, based on how we plan our day, week, our life, and what we choose to prioritize. 

The second aspect is how we manage our moment-to-moment attention while we are working on a task. This is more of the micro-level attention management that needs to be handled moment-to-moment. 

Paying attention to what is important

“Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.” ~Jose Ortega y Gassett

What we choose to pay attention to, defines us, it makes us who we are. When we are not paying attention and just going through the motions, we are on auto-pilot. Our subconscious mind heavily dictates what we pay attention to. What we pay attention to is based on our identity, our values, our desires, aspirations, fears, likes, dislikes, etc. It's an intricate mix of factors that determines what we choose to pay attention to or not. And if our attention is left unrestrained, it can threaten to redefine our identity and our values in ways that are not aligned with our true nature.

But deep within, if we truly listen to our hearts, we know what is truly important for our growth and evolution. We just need to be honest with ourselves to see this for our own good.

Having said that, we usually tend to respond to external or internal triggers to spur us into action or to work on anything really. Usually, these triggers, external or internal are of the ‘urgent’ kind. There seems to be a sense of urgency that comes with the trigger, the feeling that if we don't act on the trigger, something undesirable will happen. Largely this is an irrational feeling. But the large corporations, feasting on our attention, understand this irrational feeling really well and leave no stone unturned to trigger us into action, to suit their needs.

In the Eisenhower matrix, this is something that falls into the ‘not important’ and ‘urgent’ bucket, even though it seemingly appears ‘urgent’ when we get the notification. 

We love the Eisenhower matrix. This framework has really helped us take the guesswork out of the game. It is a powerful tool to get out of the urgency trap we invariably fall into. 

Our goal is to focus mainly on what is truly important. Within the ‘important’ quadrant, we attend to the ‘urgent’ tasks right away while the ‘not-so-urgent’ ones we schedule for later.

Magic happens when we deprioritize what is not important. We either delegate it if it is urgent and delete it completely if it is not urgent and not important.

On paper, this seems like an effective way of managing our tasks. But it is easier said than done because whether we like it or not,  our minds sometimes tend to be irrational. It takes a great deal of honesty and conscientiousness to stay true to what is truly important and not kid ourselves in the process. But fortunately, like any other muscle, it can also be trained. The more we do it, the more conscientious and productive we can become.

Paying attention to our brain

Now that we have understood how to steer our attention at the macro-level, it is time to dive into attention management at the moment-to-moment level.

To understand how we can optimize our moment-to-moment attention, we must understand our different brain states more clearly.

We could broadly divide our brain states into four categories, according to Maggie Seaver in her Attention Management essay:

1) reactive and distracted

2) focused and mindful

3) daydreaming or mind wandering, and 

4) flow

Most of the time, when we leave our minds unrestrained, we are operating in the first state - ‘reactive and distracted’. This is the state where we are generally at the mercy of distractions, both external and internal triggers that spur us into a reactive mode. This is clearly a non-ideal state. This is where we are constantly multitasking and leaking a lot of our productive energy and attention. 

You can refer to our earlier post to understand how we can master some of the external triggers. In this post, we will largely focus on the internal triggers and how we can use mindfulness to master them. This takes us to the second brain state - ‘focused and mindful’. More on the second brain state and beyond in the second part of the series.

In the next post, apart from understanding how the brain states create our reality, we will also learn four simple yet powerful techniques to hone our attention along with our tasks, to become unstoppable.

If you are passionate about reclaiming your attention, please join our waitlist on Turia.ai if you haven’t already.