Control Your Attention To Control The Quality Of Your Life And Work

In these days of instant gratification and endless technological distractions literally at our fingertips, we are increasingly denying ourselves the ability to think and work consistently and deeply at whatever we choose to undertake. Today, you just have a few seconds to grab people’s attention. Books, blogs, videos, emails, presentations, it doesn’t matter – if you don’t sell them in five seconds, you will lose their attention.

A study by Microsoft found that since the year 2000, (or about when the mobile revolution began) the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds or dropped by 33%. “Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media,” the report read.

Another study by RescueTime has shown that the average knowledge worker gets distracted every 6 minutes by their smartphone or email notifications. The report concluded, “While communication tools are great for giving us quick access to the answers we need, they’re also a constant source of interruption to our focused work.”

All this raises a huge question: How are we expected to get focused work done when we only have a few minutes in between answering emails and checking messages?

Someone reading a book or writing a report 30 years ago had few other distractions. Today, the biggest distraction of all is just a thumb-swipe away – a phone offers infinite, nonstop competition for our attention as never before. No wonder so many people struggle with getting things done.

This brings us to the title of this post.

Your most valuable and scarce resource isn’t Time or Money. It’s your Attention.

Your scarcest resource is not your time. It’s your attention. Your best work flows from paying attention to the projects that matter to you. Your deepest connections come from listening with rapt attention to the people who matter to you.

Adam Grant

Attention Management

To be consistently productive at work, to manage stress better in life, to build deeper and meaningful connections with our loved ones, we must strengthen our skills in attention management instead of time management, stress management, or marriage management. Because what we pay attention to determines the quality of the experiences we have, and the experiences we have determine the life we live. Or said another way: we must control our attention to control the quality of our life and work.

Attention management is the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximizing focus so that you can unleash your full potential in whatever you do. It’s about being intentional instead of reactive. Rather than allowing distractions to derail you, you choose where you direct your attention at any given moment, based on an understanding of your priorities and goals.

Deep Work

To be truly exceptional at the work you do, and to produce long-lasting rewards in your life, you’ll need to understand and adopt an attention management strategy – “Deep Work”.

The concept was coined by Cal Newport, a renowned author and computer science professor at Georgetown University, in a 2014 blog post and expanded upon in his 2016 bestselling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport defined deep work as follow:

“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.”

Newport in his book Deep Work defines the ability to accomplish high-quality work as the product of time spent and intensity of focus:

Deep Work = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus) 

Since “Attention Span” is defined as the length of time for which a person is able to concentrate on a particular activity, which equates to Time Spent x Intensity of Focus. We can rewrite the above formula as follows:

Deep Work = Attention Span

The longer we can pay our full attention to a specific task without distractions, internal and external, the higher the quality and value we can achieve, whether working on a project, writing a blog, practicing a skill, learning a new language, communicating with others.

Shallow Work vs Deep Work

Don’t make the mistake of confusing productivity with busyness. Doing lots of stuff in a visible manner does not mean you’re being productive. Most of what we do is shallow work, as Newport describes, “Shallow Work is Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

As Newport pointed out in his book, thanks to his Deep Work habits, Adam Grant became the youngest professor ever at Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) while completing 60+ research publications, and writing the New York Times bestseller, Give and Take, before he turned 29.

Grant figured a rather simple yet brilliant formula to be extremely productive: he batches hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches at multiple levels. For example, Grant batches his teaching in the fall, so that he can turn his attention to research in the spring and summer, and tackle this work with more intensity for a long period of time with less distraction.

By maximizing his intensity when he works, Grant maximizes the results he produces per unit of time spent working. It’s worth mentioning that despite his extreme achievements, Grant doesn’t work substantially more hours than most of his peers.

Deep work leads to deep life. Better attention management not only leads to improved productivity, it’s much more than checking things off a to-do list. The ultimate result is the ability to create a life of choice, around things that are important to us. It’s more than just exercising focus. It’s about taking back control over our time and our priorities.

Learn How to Practice Deep Work

Learning how to practice deep work requires you to be more intentional than you’ve ever been in sitting down regularly to concentrate on high-impact tasks. These strategies will help you select your preferred form of deep work, build a routine from scratch, and provide operating principles and tactics for embracing the power of directed focus.

1. No more multitasking or task-switching

What harm can it do to check your email notifications, texts, or Slack messages? A lot, actually.

According to a University of California Irvine study, “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.” The reason is what’s called attention residue: When you switch from Task A to Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity, before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.

As Newport explains in Deep Work, “that quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.”

The solution? Stop multitasking — focus on only one thing at a time. The most effective way to do that is to block out time for deep work, preferably when you have the most energy and concentration. When you’re in an energy lull, use that time for “shallow” work, like responding to messages.

To create an optimal distraction-free environment that allows deep work, try to do the following:

  • Turn email, smartphone, and other notifications off
  • Put your smartphone out of sight
  • Close all unrelated internet tabs (especially email and social media websites)
  • Let your colleagues/family know when your focus hours are (and when you are available for their requests again)

2. Choose Your Deep Work Strategy

While you may be convinced of the value of deep work, you may be unsure of how to implement it in your life. Newport describes four different types of deep work scheduling you can choose from:

3. Build a Deep Work Routine

As humans, we have an inherent love for patterns but we don’t stick to them easily. Therefore, building the routine will be helpful, in order to best execute this Deep Work strategy. Here is what you should focus on when building deep work rituals:

  • Location – choose a space that’s distraction-free and conducive to long periods of focus. In the absence of such a location, opt for noise-canceling headphones that will shut out the world while you work and notify your brain that it’s time to focus. Try to be consistent with your environment; familiarity will allow you to get into deep work mode more quickly.
  • Duration – Before you start a deep work session, determine precisely how much time you’ll devote to the task ahead. Start small, with as little as 15 minutes, and work your way up to longer sessions. Your ability to focus will improve as you flex your deep work muscle.
  • Structure – Set structure for yourself and define what deep work mode looks like. For instance, will your phone be off or on? Will you let yourself check the internet? Can you walk to the kitchen to get a snack? How will you measure the success of a session (i.e. pages read, lines coded, words written)? Whatever your rules, make them explicit and follow them for the duration of your deep work session.
  • Requirements – After a few sessions of focused work, you’ll learn what you require to support your commitment to deep work. This may include a specific type of music, your favorite beverage, or access to specific software. Always have everything you need before diving in.

4. Track Your Progress

Any Deep Work strategy that you may ever read, need not be obsessed about, rather practiced with devotion. In order to not slip in your ambition to learn Deep Work skills, you need to track how positive the exercise is turning out to be. For this, you can follow the below-mentioned guidelines.

  • Check Your Focus – Make sure you’re focusing on the highest priority task in your focus time. Quoting Cal, “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.” Hence, don’t let menial or less important things trick you, reserve your focus for the prime task. 
  • Focus on Time Spent – It’s a good practice to lay stress on the time spent, rather than how much is there to achieve. You should be able to derive how much are you achieving in a sitting such as lines of code written, paragraphs completed, cases closed, etc. That’s the real metric of performance. 
  • Create a Log – It’s advisable to go as far as keeping a log of hours spent in Deep Work and keep it handy for reference. This self-imposed logging will drive you to optimize your work delegation and focus-time spending.

Here’s an example of a simple Deep Work Log

  • Consistent Reviews – The best way to tell if you’re actually progressing is to hold reviews after some time. You can check the ratio of progress made in a week to the amount of time spent and decide if you need to spend more time or cut down on Deep Work. 

These four measures work like self-check mechanisms, preventing you from drifting off from your ultimate goal, and follow the Deep Work strategy properly.

Tame The Monkey Mind

Photo by Juan Rumimpunu on Unsplash
Photo by Juan Rumimpunu on Unsplash

Sometimes, our attention wanders and our productivity suffers not just because we are distracted by outside interruptions, but also because our own brains, frazzled by today’s over-stimulating and hyper-connected environment, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and anxious which often hijacks our brain and motion. So we must also learn to control internal factors.

In Zen Buddhism, this state of arousal and stress sensitivity has been referred to as the “monkey mind”, because our thoughts and behaviors become driven by the more primitive parts of the brain that govern emotional responses rather than the more human part of the brain that directs focus and attention based on rational, logical, whole-brain thinking.

Typical mind chatter sounds like the following:

  • Your mind reading off a laundry list of to-do items.
  • Your mind listing its fears, both real and imaginary.
  • Your mind recalling hurtful things that have happened in the past.
  • Your mind judging the present.
  • Your mind creating catastrophic “what-if” scenarios of the future.

According to a Harvard study, 47% of our days are spent with a wandering ‘monkey’ mind. It’s important to train this monkey mind because all those negativity affects our mood—causing us unhappy, angry, restless, and anxious, making it nearly impossible to work in a deep state of concentration and flow.

To control the monkey mind, here are a few common-sense ways to calm down and carry on.

1. Learn to Meditate

The effects of mediation are so robust and so well-illustrated that they’re worth mentioning right off the bat.  A research conducted in 2017 was especially important since it found strong effects in both of the two main forms of meditation: Focused Attention (FA) and Open Monitoring (OM).  In FA, one focuses on a thing—usually the breath—to train attention. And when your mind wanders, you bring it back to the breath, again and again. So the practice isn’t actually sitting there with a blank mind—it’s bringing the focus back to its object repeatedly.

On the other, more advanced form, OM (also called mindfulness meditation), you watch your thoughts non-judgmentally, acknowledge them, and then (theoretically) let them go. Rather than reacting to a thought, you just observe it curiously and then watch it subside. In the new study, OM was more effective at helping reduce the number of negative thoughts people had, but FA helped a great deal, too.

So meditation seems to offer a lot of benefits—not only psychologically, but neurologically—in taming the monkey mind.

2. Start to Exercise

When we worry, our brain wants to help guide us to mobilize to take control of the situation. Instead of fighting or running away, however, we tend to sit and wallow in our worries, which can make us feel stuck, overwhelmed, and out of control. One of the quickest ways to tame the monkey mind and reduce anxiety is to get physical activity. This allows us to utilize stress hormones in a more positive and productive way, triggers the release of endorphins that help us to feel good, and boosts our sense of accomplishment.

Even when we can’t solve the problem, taking some sort of personal action like a short burst of exercise or just taking a quick walk can tame the monkey mind, reduce stress, and help us think more clearly.

3. Start a journal

Keep a notepad with you for several weeks so whenever you feel that the monkeys in your mind are out of control, you can record your surrounding stimuli. Write down the time, who you’re with, and what you’re doing. Be specific when recording your thoughts and feelings. This will help you to identify some of your triggers.

Believe it or not, certain sights, noises, smells, and even certain people may be a trigger for your stress. Keeping a journal will help you develop “if-then” statements so you can avoid your triggers as best as possible.

For example, say you notice from your journal that your mind really starts to run wild when you are in the grocery store during peak hours. The rushing around of people may cause you more stress than you realize. If you notice this pattern in your journal, you can avoid going to the grocery store when you know it will be busy.

4. Recite a Mantra

Interrupt your monkey mind mid-sentence and distract it by reciting a mantra. When you recite a mantra you draw in your scattered attention and focus it on a word, phrase, or sound. Some mantras that I like to use are:

  • Peace
  • Breathe deeply
  • Let go
  • Here and Now
  • Slow down
  • I’m not my mind

Although you can recite your mantra silently, it’s more effective if you say it out loud. That way, you’re also listening to the word, phrase, or sound, which engages your sense of hearing. The more senses you can stimulate, the easier it will be to distract your monkey mind.

In addition, by repeating a positive phrase–either to yourself or out loud–you’ll be listening to something positive, instead of listening to the negativity being spewed by your monkey mind.

Final Thoughts

Practicing attention management and Deep Work will not eliminate all distractions from our day. But as you start to recognize when you become distracted, and build your “attention muscle” through habits like meditation or exercises, you’ll start to reclaim your life and devote more of yourself to what’s really important to you. Don’t allow distraction to derail your aspirations and intentions. Instead, control your attention to control the quality of your life and work.

Published by Anthony Tsang

I’m a bookworm, a sports & fitness addict, an adventurer, and more than anything else, I’m a permanent work-in-progress, always learning and evolving till the day I die.

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