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The digital revolution changed work as we know it. Computers fit in our pockets, and the office walls have been torn down, literally, to create more collaborative open spaces. With our current technology, “at work” is wherever we happen to be. You’d think this would help, but it’s only made things more complicated, and people are struggling even more with getting important work done.

For as long as we can remember, productivity has been framed around “time management.” We’re not far off from the era when a day planner with a page of to-dos was our primary tool. But in this age of distraction, time management is dead. No matter how much you block out your calendar, your smartphone and email are always alerting you to something new that demands your attention. Distraction is the norm. And yes, we’re distracted from work, but that isn’t even the most challenging part of the problem: we’re getting distracted from really important work by more work!

From Time Management to Attention Management

Time management is the wrong approach; it’s time to move away from it, and to start thinking about “attention management.” How you manage your time is only relevant to the extent that you also devote your attention. Being able to regain and control your attention is the only way to break the cycle of constant distractions, so you can cut down on the busy work and start getting important things done. You can begin small. Single task. Take moments of mindfulness. Shut off some notifications. Then you can work toward grand gestures. The good news is that you can exert much more control than you might think.

We imagine ourselves as victims of our devices and the world around us. We think we have to be in touch, we have to be available to people who need us, and constant distraction is just something we have to deal with. In fact, nearly all the time, none of this is true. Distraction costs businesses almost 1 trillion dollars annually, but the day-to-day effects are much more personal. The quality of our work suffers because we’re just not wired to multitask—think of texting while driving. And our quality of life suffers. Constant distraction erodes our attention span until we can’t focus on a person, a conversation, or an experience for more than a few seconds or minutes at a time. Think about the last diner you had with friends or family – how long were you able to focus before you felt the urge to check your phone for messages or emails?

Living in a world of handheld technology means the difference between “work time” and “personal time” is fuzzy. Work is ever present, even if we’re only checking email to see if something urgent has arrived (sometimes every few minutes, all night long). We don’t get real and meaningful breaks, and it turns out high quality downtime is essential to deeper thinking, making connections, breaking down ideas, and solving problems. If you’ve discovered a great solution in the shower when your mind was somewhere else, you know what I mean.


Stay tuned: in our next article, we’ll talk about how to master attention management by extending your control over your environment, your technology, and your own behavior.