How to Be a Productivity Ninja: Attention management

Graham Allcott
Graham Allcott / Published February 24, 2020

In any knowledge work job, you're really playing two different roles at once: you're simultaneously the "boss" and the "worker". You're responsible for:

  • Deciding what your work is (boss-mode)
  • Doing the work (worker-mode)
  • Dealing with new information inputs (worker-mode) and reacting to them to decide whether to change your priorities as a result (boss-mode)

This creates an immediate conflict and serious potential for indecision about which role should have your attention at different times of the day: do you spend more time in boss-mode (thinking and analyzing your work, ensuring its success, planning your next steps) or in worker-mode? Naturally, the grass is always greener: the time you spend in boss-mode may remind you of all the things that you need to be doing in the trenches.

Yet, while you're trying to crank through your to-do list, you'll be making mental notes about all the new projects that need some precious thinking time. This is where "attention management" comes in—your new best friend in the battle against stress and information overload.

What does "attention" really mean?

Your attention is a more limited resource than your time.

You might feel as if you've been in back-to-back meetings all day, and it's 4 p.m. before you even have a chance to get any desk time in, to finally look at emails, catch up on your reading and planning, and seize control. On these days, you might really feel that you're short on time, not on attention. Wrong. Your attention is a currency to be spent, and if you choose to give away as much as 80 percent of your attention to meetings, don't be surprised if that final 20 percent of your attention amounts to little more than dealing with a few emails, followed by time spent staring into space and feeling overwhelmed. But don't fool yourself that it was anyone else's fault—if you start to think about the time spent in meetings not just in terms of the time you lose, but also in terms of the attention and energy expended, you soon realize that complex and difficult meetings are a massive drain on your personal resources.

Attention is your currency. Time might be spent, but attention still needs to be paid. Look after this currency, as it's the most valuable currency in the world.

Levels of attention

In an average day, you will have different levels of attention. For ease, a crude analysis might highlight three different types of attention:

1. Proactive attention: This is where you are fully focused, alert, in the zone, and ready to make your most important decisions or tackle your most complex tasks.
2. Active attention: This is where you're plugged in, ticking along, but perhaps flagging slightly. You're easily distracted, occasionally brilliant, but often sloppy too.
3. Inactive attention: The lights are on but no one appears to be home. There's not too much brainpower left, and you're likely to really struggle with complex or difficult tasks. Your attention here isn't worthless, but its value is limited.

Of course, these are crude and artificial demarcations, but useful ones to think about when trying to maximize your productivity through good attention management. I have spent the last two years watching my attention management trends and flows and talking to others about their own patterns, too. Here's a pattern I see regularly. It's the classic "morning person":

8–9 a.m. Active Attention. Traveling and arriving at work. Coffee kicking in. Doing some reading, thinking, or email.
9–11 a.m. Proactive Attention. Either it gets spent smashing through the hardest thing on your list, or it's lost in someone else's boring meeting or emails.
11 a.m.–1 p.m. Active Attention. We're back in the middle, doing good work (but not great work).
1:30–3:30 p.m. Inactive attention. Post-lunch. The day is dragging. Had too many carbs for lunch. Struggling for concentration. The coffee is starting to taste a bit sickly, too.
3:30–4:30 p.m. Active attention. Second wind! Hooray! Getting some reasonable work done again.
4:30–5:30 p.m. Inactive attention. The official caffeine crash. Shuffle some papers or work furiously to get that email sent out before you go home.

How much proactive attention time do we have here?

Less than you think. Two to three hours a day, Monday to Thursday, and a couple of hours on a Friday, probably.

Schedule your work based on your attention level

Every job will have within it a range of tasks. These will often range from making huge decisions about what to do and when to do it, through to updating contact information, filing things away, or changing the printer cartridge. Once you start to focus on your attention levels, you'll start to realize that it's a criminal waste to be changing the printer cartridge during a period of proactive attention. It's like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, although in that moment it probably feels no different to when you change the printer cartridge at any other time. Yes, attention management is certainly a subtle game.

It's worth thinking about your natural strengths and weaknesses here. Save tasks that you find particularly difficult for when your attention level is proactive, leave the intense but easier stuff for those active attention times, and try to save up the easy or dull stuff for when you're capable of little else.

While there will be patterns to your proactive attention, it changes from day to day and sometimes from minute to minute. Therefore, to be able to schedule or select your work appropriately to your attention level, you need to have all possible options available to you so that you're always free to make informed choices from a position of confident, Zen-like calm. Since a lot of the boss-mode work of defining the best ways to achieve your tasks needs to be done when you have the proactive attention available to be able to make critical and strategic decisions, you need to ensure that you do your thinking when your attention is proactive. Finishing this thinking is what gives you the best possible range of options to choose from and the best possible information to support your decisions about what your worker-self should be doing.

List of things to do during each attention level

Being caught in a period of inactive or active attention and not having a clue about all the possibilities of what's out there to do next very quickly leads to a lack of clarity, stress, procrastination, and bad decisions.

For this reason, prioritizing your proactive attention towards the thinking parts of your work rather than the doing should be a key goal for any Productivity Ninja.

Increasing your attention: making inactive attention active, making active attention proactive

In truth, if you're feeling like your mind is in a real period of inactive attention, it's impossible to do that much about it. You're already tired, lacking in focus, perhaps lacking in motivation. Here are some short-term fixes—the sticking plasters of attention management.

Change the view

It's possible to temporarily trick your brain into a short additional period of active attention if you're feeling sluggish and inactive. To do this, you need to jolt your brain into needing to feel its way around again. If I'm asked to facilitate a long meeting, I will ask people to move chairs in the afternoon and face a different direction. Just this small movement that changes the view is enough to awaken your consciousness and jolt it into increased attention. If you're working on a long report, move to a new part of the room every half an hour or so. If you're working on an Excel spreadsheet, change all the fonts to red and green just for half an hour and then change it all back. These tweaks in perspective can really help to keep you going that bit longer than you really have the energy for.

Change the game

If you're really battling to stay focused, change the game every 30–60 minutes. Don't dwell on that report, staring into space; instead do half an hour of email, half an hour of the report, half an hour of something completely different, half an hour of the report, and so on. Keep your attention on its toes and keep moving.

Air

Get outside and go for a quick walk. The fresh air in your lungs, the movement, the changes in sights, sounds, smells and thought patterns will awaken you again for the next little while. If you can't get outside, simply open a window and take some deep breaths of fresh air, with five minutes just to admire the view and notice your surroundings. Such time to "just be" is precious, and again, it'll awaken the senses and switch your attention back into gear.

The magic of creating additional pockets of attention

Finally, what if you could find additional pockets of attention where there were previously none? I'm not talking about extending your working hours here, but perhaps using some of the points in your day that you might currently not have considered. Opportunity is everywhere—as long as we're prepared.

Calls and walking

Every day I have at least two periods where I'm walking somewhere for five or ten minutes. This is where I make most of my phone calls. Why make calls when I'm at my desk and have so many other things available to me, when I can do this when I'd otherwise be, well, just walking? I can't do these calls unless I'm prepared, though. I need a regular discipline of adding phone numbers to my contacts and a regularly updated list of what calls I can make on the move.

Reading and waiting

Similarly, I keep both a physical and a digital file of reading materials. My physical "Reading" file is simply an A4 document wallet. It lives in my bag and is constantly being filled up and emptied. For digital reading, I generally use Evernote, although Pocket and Instapaper are both great, too. Evernote's web clipper function allows me to save website articles and then come back to them later (without the need for an internet connection). Trains and dentists' waiting rooms are much better places when what you have to read there is actually useful. It's also sometimes nice to catch up on your reading at home for an hour, while relaxing with a cup of tea, instead of reading that stuff at your desk.

Thinking and traveling

One of my Think Productive colleagues lives just outside London and travels into the city on a motorbike. By keeping a list of all the big decisions and thinking he has coming up, he can refer to this just before he turns the key and starts the engine running; it sets him up to use that time really productively. For several years I lived in London and rode a motorbike (by far the best way of getting around the city) but all I could think about when I rode my bike was, "Don't die, don't die, don't die," so I'm in awe of the confidence needed to also use this time for useful thinking! There are many, many other examples of times a "Thinking List" comes in handy: at airports, in queues, when driving, while attending functions you don't really care about, or watching films your partner wanted to see but you hate (do it subtly though!), and many more. A great tip is to keep this list synchronized to your phone. Since you always have your phone with you, the list is always there when you find an opportunity arises. Again, you need to be prepared for this to work!

Coffee and conversations

Think about all those internal emails that fly around the office from people who sit just a few desks away. While the kettle is being boiled or the coffee made, use this time to have quick conversations in reply to some of those emails. Before you get up to make a drink, do a quick scan of your email inbox, picking out two or three potential targets. Then, your goal is to hunt them down between now and when you sit back down with your hot beverage. Make it a game! Particularly focus on the conversations that are so much more easily done in person than on email, which will save you a bucketful of time later on. Sometimes a useful way to decide this is to think about which emails might lead you to reply with a series of questions—usually in a two-way conversation, the number of questions you need to answer is seriously reduced.


A Productivity Ninja is ruthless in choosing where to put their attention. A Ninja is prepared, able to match the right levels of their attention to the right tasks. A Ninja is agile and moves fluidly through their day, maximizing their attention levels to make magic happen.

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