Time and Attention

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time and attention

Nearly 100 years ago, on May 1, 1926, Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company introduced a novel concept to its factory workers: the weekend. Of course, there’s a long and storied history of workers’ rights, but this is as good a starting point as any. Ford’s 40-hour workweek gave us the template in which many people live and work today.

This wasn’t the first time Henry Ford had provided an apparent benefit to his workforce, having doubled the wages of his factory employees ten years earlier. But both of these ostensibly generous offerings from above were, of course, quite beneficial to the Ford Motor Company. More money and leisure time meant more ability for his middle class workers to buy and drive around in those fancy new Ford cars. But with the reduction in working hours, there also came the expectation of increased productivity–getting more done with less available time.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson would famously muse that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” And by shrinking the time in which the Ford factory workers had to meet previously-established production goals, the Ford Motor Company would have to manage their time more effectively. If you know how much time you have available to you, and you also know all of the things you have to get done, then time management is merely a game of matching. Both are known quantities, and so you’d simply subtract how much time it takes to do what needs doing from how much time you have. Easy, right?

A Google search for “Time Management” yields over 3 billion results. Amazon has over 60,000 books on the topic to sell you. The sheer volume of thought and opinion on the subject over the past century would seem to indicate that time management is perhaps simple, but not easy. 

In The Principles of Scientific Management, Frederick Winslow Taylor elucidated the concept of efficiency as a means of obtaining professional productivity, essentially championing the idea of working smarter, not harder. And it’s in the spirit of efficiency that we turn our gaze toward the quality of our work.

Attention management is crucial

According to estimates from 2016, almost half of the US workforce is engaged in knowledge work, and Gartner research showed that knowledge workers totalled over 1 billion workers globally in 2019. The term “knowledge work” was popularized by legendary management consultant and author Peter Drucker, who differentiated workers responsible for cognitive tasks and problem-solving from those doing more manual work. “Knowledge work is not defined by quantity … knowledge work is defined by its results.” These workers are not necessarily bound by time, physical ability, speed, or tangible resources, but instead are limited only by their imagination.

As Seth Godin might argue, this effectively makes a knowledge worker a Creative, since “creativity is the generous act of solving an interesting problem on behalf of someone else. It’s a chance to take emotional and intellectual risks with generosity.”

The working world is quite a bit different from the early 1900’s and early automotive manufacturing, and if you’re reading this blog, I’d wager that there’s a strong chance you may be a knowledge worker yourself. And yet, despite the dramatically different nature of our work, our concept of managing time has hardly shifted at all. Most are still working the same 5-day 40-hour workweek designed for Ford factory workers, and may in fact be held to similar standards of production. 

While we’re not up against the same limitations found in manual work, knowledge workers must contend with the strength of their ability to focus on the task at hand. If time management is largely a quantitative measure, then attention management is a qualitative measure of our focus.

As William James once wrote, “my experience is what I agree to attend to.” Learning to manage your attention and to focus with intention is, perhaps, the challenge of the knowledge worker. Defining what we intend to attend to is what we might call ‘prioritization.’ And on the Waking Up mindfulness app, Sam Harris often speaks of “aiming one’s attention” at something (what we attend to), as if your focus were a spotlight over the dark field that is your consciousness. Focus is a skill; a tool to be sharpened and maintained.

Our attention is our most valuable asset, and now, more than ever before, we must be diligent in protecting our attention. The competition for our attention is fierce, whether it’s social media feeds and algorithmic suggestions, the 24-hour cable news cycle, an infinite assortment of media streaming libraries, over 2 million available podcasts, or what Cal Newport has termed the “hyperactive hive mind”–the always-on, instant, frictionless asynchronous communication pervasive in modern business through email, Slack, Teams. Without setting intent and choosing what we attend to, it’s easier than ever to forfeit our experience to those bidding for our attention. 

In his book Indistractable, author Nir Eyal proclaims that “time management is pain management.“ Eyal contends that one seeks to manage their time after encountering distraction from something they find uncomfortable. And he points to “traction” as the opposite of distraction–the things you do that push you toward what you wish to accomplish. The challenge, of course, is that we often find that the things that help us grow into who we wish to become are also the things that produce the most discomfort. They push us outside of our comfort zone and force us to adapt and change. And so we’re naturally pulled away from the very activities that require the most focus.

No one-size fits all answer

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was written only 5 years after Henry Ford introduced the schedule we’re accustomed to, and a central plotpoint of the book is the deification of Our Ford Himself. The story shows the dangerous pitfalls of living by a dogma of ruthless efficiency and productivity–extending this management approach beyond the factories to all elements of the “utopian” civilization

And going all in on attention management may bring you closer to something of a meditation master, but learning to stop your own heart, while indisputably impressive, may be a bit overkill if you’re simply hoping to contribute to your professional wellbeing.

What, then, is a knowledge worker to do? I don’t think anyone truly has an answer for this, as each person (especially those in a creative, cognitively demanding endeavor) is going to need to test the boundaries of their own productivity style. I believe, though, that if there IS an answer, it lies along the razor’s edge in the balance of time and attention management.

As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

Harrington Emerson

There are an endless array of time management systems for you to try, and you’re likely to find that many abide by a similar set of principles. While the methods and terminology may differ, ultimately the idea is to recognize that time is a finite resource, and that trying to squeeze EVERYTHING in is likely a fool’s errand. A solution, then, is to prioritize what matters most. 

Whether you call this your Most Important Task (MIT), your Highlight, or your One Thing, you must identify the thing (or things) that above all must get done to produce the most forward momentum toward what you wish to achieve (traction). Nir Eyal notes that “you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it’s distracting you from,” and this is where your ability to aim your attention at your priority tasks will prove crucial.

Looking at your calendar, determine how much of your time is spoken for with obligations such as internal meetings, customer or vendor calls, or routine tasks. Once those items are blocked off on your schedule, take inventory of the remaining empty space–and begin protecting your priority tasks by plugging them in where applicable. This time is invaluable and is where the real magic happens, so treat them as just as–if not more–important than any other calendar event. And when that time arrives, give it the attention it deserves

In what ways do you struggle with time management? Have you found any particular practices helpful in improving your ability to focus? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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