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Opinion Time management isn’t the problem – our attention span is

Chris Bailey is a productivity author, speaker and consultant based in Ottawa. His latest book is Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction.

Walk through your local bookstore and you’ll find dozens of books devoted to time management. Ironically enough, most of them are probably a waste of your time. You’ve likely already mastered two important elements of the topic: You can show up to meetings when you’re supposed to, and are fully capable of keeping your calendar on track. Most of us are pretty good at managing our time. What we’re not as good at is managing our attention.

One study found that when we’re working in front of a computer, we focus on one thing for an average of just 40 seconds before switching our attention to something else. A lot of these distractions come from other people in the form of e-mails and instant messages, but research shows we’re actually responsible for 50 per cent of the distractions that sabotage our focus.

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Most of the time, we get back on track quickly. But we don’t fare as well when we’re interrupted completely. In fact, when someone interrupts us, it takes an average of 29 minutes to resume our focus. We fare only a bit better when we distract ourselves – in these cases, it takes us 22 minutes to get back on track.

To put it simply, we’re distracted a lot. At the same time, we rarely choose where we direct our attention – the world decides for us. A new e-mail notification slides onto our screen and instantly halts us in our tracks. We receive a text message in an important meeting and turn our attention from the people in front of us to our phone instead. Focusing on a project in the office, a co-worker stops by to flag an emergency, which interrupts our focus for another half an hour.

Think back to your most productive day. Chances are you weren’t tending to a new distraction every 40 seconds. Perhaps you were on deadline. When distractions came your way, you eschewed them in favour of paying attention to what was actually important. On these days, you entered a mode I like to call hyperfocus, where you brought your full, deliberate attention to one important thing, which let you accomplish in an hour what might normally take an afternoon. On days such as these, you are the master of your attention.

I get distracted a lot, and recently embarked on a project to get to the bottom of why this is – and what we can do about it. I pored through hundreds of research papers and talked to dozens of experts about the state of our attention. Here’s what I discovered along the way:

  • Being distracted isn’t our fault (it’s the way we’re biologically wired).
  • Deliberately letting our mind wander is one of the best ways to become more creative.
  • When our attention is at rest, we think about our goals 14 times as much as when we’re focused.
  • We accomplish our intentions more often by taming distractions ahead of time. A few ways to do this: Use your phone’s greyscale mode, which turns your screen black-and-white and makes apps far less engaging; enable e-mail notifications for VIP contacts only; and have no-phone dinners with your family.

The most significant idea I encountered was a simple one, but with profound implications: The state of our attention determines the state of our lives. The moments in which we’re distracted accumulate – day by day, week by week, year by year – to create a life that feels distracted and overwhelming.

On the other hand, when we focus for longer periods on what’s productive and meaningful – important conversations, big work projects and experiences with loved ones – our lives improve by virtually every measure. We get more done, dive deeper into our experiences and notice more meaning around us, because we process the world with greater intention. We stop allowing our devices to interrupt us every 40 seconds. And we feel more in control of our lives, because we take control of each moment.

Time management is a topic that has been studied and scrutinized to death. But while we’ve been managing our time better, we’ve grown more distracted than ever before. It doesn’t matter how well we manage our time if we can’t focus our minds on what we want to accomplish.

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In a world of constant distraction, it’s time for a new focus: attention management.

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