Get Your Focus Back: Using Attention Management to Improve Productivity

by Pranav Ramesh
May 31, 2022

Doree Morales couldn’t seem to crack the code. As a newly hired software developer, she hasn’t been able to keep up with her daily responsibilities, much less ever get ahead or brainstorm solutions to larger software issues. It seemed like all she was able to accomplish each day was respond to endless emails or put out fires.  

Doree recalled back to the final interview that helped land her this job. “What’s one area you struggle with or need more improvement in?” she was asked. “Time management,” was her response. It was an honest answer and something she had struggled with at her previous job. But was the problem Doree? Or was it something else? 

It’s not surprising if you feel similarly. While many employers have made significant efforts to improve employee wellness in the workplace, especially because of Covid-19, things are still challenging for employees and employers alike across most industries. With staffing shortages and poor employee engagement, the only certainty is there’s never enough time to get the work done. 

There’s some good news though. Time management has another side to it. Learning about attention management, and developing skills around this concept, can provide relief and make for better, more productive time spent working.  


Time-management vs. Attention-management

Traditionally, time management has been thought of as the process of organizing and planning how to divide your time between different activities. But “time” isn’t something that’s always under our control. Time is better thought of as an indefinite, autonomic construct- something that we have very little control over. It’s inherently unmanageable. We can’t control how many minutes are in an hour or how many hours are in a day. Wouldn’t it be nice to add more hours in the day from say, 5-10 pm? But that’s not how time works.  

We also can’t control everything that happens within those highly specific hours in which we plan to manage our time. Emergencies happen at work or home, new projects take priority over old ones, and distractions abound from many sources throughout the day. This helps explain why time management is often an unattainable and unsuccessful approach to productivity for a lot of us.  

Conversely, attention management is the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximizing focus, so that you can reach your potential and be productive. Attention management places less emphasis on how much you can get done within a certain period and instead helps limit distractions and sharpen your focus.

Doree came to understand she had little control over her physical “time” at work. This helped her reframe her thinking. If she couldn’t stop the minutes giving way to hours while she pressed away working on things outside of her scope at work, she could at least turn her focus inward and figure out how to manage one thing she was surely in control of. Her own attention and focus. 


RELATED POST: 9 Steps to Achieve Extreme Productivity in the Face of the New Normal


How to improve your attention-management skills

Attention management, the ability to choose when, and what, you choose to concentrate on, can help you learn how to focus your attention. It is important to realize there are four main states in which our attention fluctuates throughout the day. These four states include reactive and distracted, focused and mindful, daydreaming, and flow. The best attention state for productivity is, no surprise, focused and mindful. Making sure you’re well-rested and not hungry will help you begin to build focus and momentum.  

 It’s critical to recognize and understand what state your attention is in when you decide you need to start focused work. Then you can intentionally shift your attention into a focused and mindful state to get your work done. Once you’re feeling focused, you can control your environment and your access to technology- these are the keys to being productive and staying productive.   

Control your environment

While it sounds easy to just say, “take control of your environment” sometimes that is more challenging than it seems. If you work from home, distractions can be endless, from kids to pets to deliveries to devices. Working at the office often isn’t much better. As workers make a return to the office post-pandemic, colleagues want to catch up, supervisors want more face time, and there are still the same proverbial fires to put out.  

Once Doree determined the state her attention was in, and more intentionally addressed her challenges with “time management,” she realized there was a lot she could control, especially within her office environment. She created signals to her co-workers that indicated she was not available for chit-chat. This included putting in her headphones and using a sign indicating she shouldn’t be bothered unless it was an emergency. This was critical for Doree because she worked from a cube- without a door that could be closed. Colleagues and supervisors often need to be told explicitly when a person needs to focus, and a sign can help a great deal. Doree used her sign for 90 minutes twice daily, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Quickly she could tell a difference in her ability to retain her focus.  

Limit distractions

Once Doree was able to create a distraction-free environment, she knew she needed to eliminate distractions from internal sources, including her phone and email. Every time a new notification popped up on either her cell phone or laptop, her focus was instantly broken.  

Experts recommend closing out of email (the horror!) and going into offline mode or do-not-disturb mode on your computer. Any time a distraction breaks concentration, it’s even more challenging to return to that focus and mindful attention state.  

Doree took these recommendations a step further and switched off her phone during her 90-minute “deep focus” sessions in the morning and afternoon. Research has proven that the sight of a phone can be a very distracting presence. This tactic helped Doree, and she found she was able to make huge strides on what seemed like massive projects before she began to take attention management seriously.  

One final strategy Doree used to improve her focus, and productivity, was to engage the support of her supervisor. As Doree explained her plan to practice attention management during a one-on-one meeting, she was applauded for her effort, and they offered to help in any way they could. Her supervisor was so impressed with the initiative she took to manage her attention, that they plan to introduce the concept and Doree’s techniques at the next all-staff meeting.  

Once Doree decided to make a change in her work style, and take attention management seriously, not only was she more productive at her job, but she was also happier at her job. If you need a change like Doree, consider taking an attention management approach to what you might have thought was a time management problem.  


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