Sapience Attention Management
Productivity Improvement | 04.06.2015

You Need Attention Management, Not Time Management.

“When you really pay attention everything is your teacher.” Ezra Bayda

We recently did an interview with noted employee engagement expert and author Julie Winkle Giulioni that had several interesting insights into how employee performance and engagement could be positively impacted by learning. Among the points she made was a very different way of looking at focus that got me thinking. Julie made the point that in the context of ones work focus comprised three inter-related but separate parts:

  • Clarity – Of what needs to be done and how
  • Energy – The physical and mental capacity to do what has to be done and
  • Attention – The ability to fix your attention on the task till it is completed

On examination this reveals an interesting takeaway – that while we obsess about how much time is needed for a task what we should be thinking about is the attention we need to pay to it to complete it in the time available. Managing the time is not as crucial as managing the attention the task gets.

Given that time is finite the question is how can attention management help us? There is an interesting theory born out of the Just In Time (JIT) inventory management technique called DRIFT – Do it RIght the First Time. Essentially the theory talks about how focusing on doing every step of the process right the first time will ensure the whole process gets completed correctly the first time – a mistake anywhere in the piece will necessitate rework and consequently, loss of time. This is an important measure given that the time available for a task is finite. Clearly paying complete attention to the task at hand can help us get the most out of the finite time available. That being established what can we do to manage our attention?

The first suggestion runs a shade counter to conventional wisdom – many managers tend to value employees who claim to be experts at “multi-tasking” but I recommend single-tasking at all times. Delving deeper will show that anyway the human brain is incapable of multi-tasking. The brain is forced to toggle between tasks and all research has shown that there is a significant loss as each jump is made. In this context I quote Stanford professor Clifford Nash often, “Multitaskers are terrible at ignoring irrelevant information, they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized, and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another”. There is ample evidence out there that multi-tasking causes stress and some even suggest this causes a loss of IQ by as much as 10 points – not the greatest argument for going that route.

The other sworn enemy of attentive working is the distractions we suffer through the work day. We are surrounded by distraction generators – email, phone calls, instant messages, colleagues dropping by for work or gossip all add up to a staggering 28% of the typical work day being lost to interruptions according to Basex. A much quoted study by Gloria Mark found that knowledge workers took as much as 25 minutes to get back to peak efficiency after being interrupted. The way forward is clear – switch off your smart phones, close that email window and put out the ‘Do not disturb’ sign if you want to give a task your full attention.

I like to talk a lot about being Mindful as I believe that being Mindful means focusing all your attention on the here and now – of being “fully committed” to the task at hand. The conclusion seems clear enough – this approach of giving the task at hand your full attention is the best way to ensure that you get more out of the time available. The question is do I have your attention?