In getting things done, time and attention are the only two things that matter

If I just grabbed you on the street and said:

“WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN YOUR LIFE?”

You would probably say something like your family, or your church group, or maybe your career, or maybe your kid or your pet, or whatever. And the thing is, in some part of your heart, that’s absolutely true. But do you have a sense in which your time and attention tracks to actually doing good stuff for that thing that you claimed is really important? Do you have an internal barometer that tells you how well that’s going?

In fact is the thing that you claim is important really important?

Because, if a lot of people actually looked at where their time and attention went, the parts that they do have control over, it would look like the most important thing in their life is Facebook.

It’s been over a month since I’ve written anything.

I’ve been in a recalibration period, and as part of that, I revisited a great talk by Merlin Mann that he delivered at Rutgers University in 2010. It’s titled “Who moved my brain?” and it’s about time and attention.

When I was enlisted, I spent a lot of time after work researching productivity and ways to be more effective. That brought me to Merlin’s old website, 43 Folders. I started reading Merlin’s articles and listening to his talks. I was simply looking for tips on how to be more productive, the specific things I was supposed to do – like make a “Hipster PDA,” which I used until the iPhone came out. Merlin has a way of speaking philosophically about the topic of productivity, time, and attention, often to the annoyance of a listener who just wants to know how exactly to be more effective.

What are the specific things I’m supposed to do?

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate his more indirect approach. In this talk, he opens up with “The more time I spend thinking about this stuff, the less interested I am in the relatively superficial problems of things like e-mail.” He describes the anxiety and frustration that we have with email, social media, time, and attention as the “top layer” of our problems.

If you pay attention, what he’s usually getting at is that the things we’re seeking to fix are often really easy, but they suggest much deeper problems underneath that we haven’t addressed.

Thanks to the gentle nudge from friend of the blog Andrew Steadman at The Military Leader, I’ve been listening to podcasts again and I get the sense that the field of cognitive optimal performance is surging in a way I’m not sure that it was ten or even five years ago. It’s for that reason that I’m sharing this talk, because it’s still relevant and potentially pretty illuminating for someone trying to grapple with managing their own time and attention better.

The talk is worth listening to in its entirety and will be especially useful for anyone interested in understanding how they use and manage all things digital (email and social media especially) and optimizing workplace performance.

If you’re wondering what my biggest take away from the talk was, it’s this: I turned off notifications on my iPhone. In in the talk, Merlin discusses how we allow our time and attention to be captured by literally anyone in the world with an internet connection. If someone in Zaire emails me and it pops up on my screen, for that second that my eyes diverted from whatever they were looking at to see that I got an email from some guy in Zaire. I’ve lost control of my time and attention. No matter what I was doing, by allowing myself to be interrupted, I am tacitly saying that nothing that I am currently doing is more important than what anyone on the internet wants me to pay attention to.

When you think about it in those terms, when you keep your notifications on, or the email “bubble” that pops up when you get a new email, or whatever other form this takes, you’re relinquishing an incredible power -really the only power you have.

Doing something as simple as turning off notifications might not seem like a big deal for some people, but I’m a compulsive checker. If they’re on, and I see them on the screen, I’m compelled to investigate further.

“What did he say in that comment?”

“What’s in that email?

Turning off notifications is in the “tips and tricks” category of productivity. It’s a small thing that you can do right now to reclaim some time and attention, but it is indicative of a bigger problem in how habits are formed and managed, hence the recalibration period I mentioned in the beginning.

Enjoy.

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