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It’s time to stop obsessing about time-management techniques and switch to attention management if you want to be successful.

Trainer Maura Nevel Thomas says the standard notion of beginning your day with a to-do list, divided into A, B and C priorities, won’t last past the first e-mail that arrives.

“When you incorporate the principles of attention management, you’ll recognize when your attention is being stolen (or has the potential to be stolen) and make smart choices about your focus and your actions. You’ll feel more in control, and you’ll be more intentional and reactive,” she writes in her new book Attention Management.

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While social media, e-mail and other internet goodies have heightened the need for managing your attention, in fact it’s not a new phenomenon. She defines attention management through a quote from 19th-century psychologist and philosopher William James, who said attention “is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.” The key word: one.

It requires attention and control. Bring those two elements together and you have four possibilities, three positive and one counterproductive.

The ideal state is when attention is high but, ironically, control is low. That’s when we can achieve flow. Your sense of self falls away because a specific part of your brain disengages, she notes, yet you are fully attentive and absorbed in the task at hand. “You can’t enter flow at will – it’s not a behaviour but a state your brain enters all on its own when the right conditions are present,” she notes. “The problem is that today’s distraction-filled workplaces are the enemies of flow. After all, how immersed can you get in an important task when you get a new e-mail alert every 30 seconds or when your workstation is in the middle of a lively, noisy open office?”

High attention and high control can led to the desired state she calls “focused and mindful.” You are fully present, deliberately avoiding distractions. You can maintain attention for an extended period of time. It can happen in a job interview, a thoughtful task or creative activity, or when the lights dim in the movie theatre.

Practising mindfulness can help with finding and staying in this attentive state. Study your workspace and see how you can reduce distractions. Build your attentive ability by working for short stretches of time, perhaps only 10 minutes initially, without distraction. Take regular breaks to maintain energy and focus when working.

The opposite situation is “reactive and distracted,” when attention and control are both low. Attention is divided and superficial as you multitask, flipping between computer windows. Obviously, this is where you don’t want to be.

The fourth situation is daydreaming, occurring during “in-between moments” such as walking to your car from the office or waiting at the supermarket checkout. There aren’t a lot of stimuli demanding reaction and you aren’t focused on anything in particular – attention is low, but control is high. It can be valuable, restorative or generating unusual ideas as the mind wanders. Fascination with our smartphones, however, is limiting these moments, to our detriment.

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She says you need to recognize how much time you spend in these four situations and then adjust according to what’s important to you, depending on the nature of your work and priorities for life. “In a world that’s getting more frenetic and reactive, you can take a stand for thoughtfulness, for balance, and for meaningful work by practiing attention management,” she says.

Quick Hits

  • After making a tough decision, business coach David Finkel urges you on Inc. to take a few minutes to ask this important questions: For this idea to prove successful, what assumptions would have to prove true? Sketch out on paper the key assumptions you’re making that must prove true for your idea to be successful.
  • Instead of asking colleagues for feedback on how you can improve, ask for advice. Research reported in Harvard Business Review found people offered more critical and actionable input when that word was used.
  • Our workload is essentially a collection of stacks, be it of paper or e-mail. Always start from the bottom of the pile, information overload expert Nathan Feldes says in his newsletter.
  • There is no need to list your existing boss as a reference when you apply for a job – in fact, normally no references are required at that first stage, says recruiter Gerald Walsh on his blog. If references are sought then, he advises you indicate in a covering letter that you have not included your current boss for confidentiality reasons, but will when a conditional offer is made.
  • Blogger James Clear notes that essayist John Gardner pointed out everyone fails. A big question is whether you collaborated in your own defeat.

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