No matter the field, we all want to increase our productivity. However, most of us pursue this goal through outdated and ineffective tactics, like trying to manage our time. Instead of making often-broken appointments with yourself on your calendar, and pretending that you have some control over the march of time, you can take back control by shifting your perspective to managing your attention.
In my decades in the productivity industry, I’ve seen many changes, but none as profound as the difference that mastering attention management makes for my clients. Attention management is a collection of behaviors—including presence, concentration, daydreaming, flow, and others. When practiced, these behaviors can help you recognize your mental state, and consciously shift to the state that will maximize your results in the moment.
Learning to manage your attention empowers you to get more of your most important work done. You feel calm and in control instead of stressed and frazzled. And you experience more satisfaction and fulfillment in work and in life. Attention management allows you to live a life of choice, rather than a life of reaction and distraction.
However, thinking about productivity in terms of attention management takes some getting used to, since “time management” is so popular. To make it easier, I created a model called the 4 Quadrants of Attention Management.
The quadrants are determined by how much control you are exerting over your attention, and how much focused attention (or what I like to call “brainpower momentum”) you are able to muster as a result. The quadrants are:
- Reactive and distracted. In this quadrant, you’re multitasking, and feeling scattered. You’re trying to “keep too many plates spinning” at once.
- Daydreaming. This quadrant is where you’re letting your mind wander without much external stimulus. (This quadrant is very restorative for your brain!)
- Focused and mindful. This is the quadrant where you’re being fully present and actively avoiding distraction. You’re working hard to maintain your attention for an extended period of time.
- Flow. Spending time in “Focused and mindful” can help your brain slip into Flow, where full attention becomes effortless. You’re so fully absorbed in an activity that you lose track of everything else.
Here’s how this 4 Quadrants model looks in action:
Always Busy, Rarely Productive
A recent client, Jill (not her real name), is a busy executive at a midsize company, where she brought me in to deliver training for her team. In our pre-training discussions, I learned that she’s trying to balance delivering high-quality, on-time work, developing her direct reports, and helping set the overall direction for her company.
Even as Jill’s days are filled with activity, she knows that some of her highest priorities are falling by the wayside. She needs to plan for the next quarter, but, with so many competing priorities and constant communication, she can’t really tap into her abilities as a visionary thinker — the very reason her company hired her.
Jill also wants to spend more time mentoring and coaching her direct reports. But she’s had to cancel her one-on-ones for several weeks now because she’s too busy “putting out fires.”
Which Quadrant Are You In?
Although Jill felt trapped by her current work patterns, using the 4 Quadrants Model empowered her to take back control.
I helped her identify the major components of her role, such as the amount of collaboration versus independence, the amount of creativity and insight versus tactical execution, and how often she needs to be accessible to others versus how much “deep work” time is required.
Those approximations helped us reassess Jill’s time in each quadrant to better fit her responsibilities. The analysis uncovered that like many of my clients, Jill was spending the majority of her time in the Reactive and Distracted quadrant, although the other quadrants are where she gets her most impactful work done.
Through our work together, she realized that external factors—rather than her own priorities— were determining what got her attention, and were habituating her to distraction. As a result, she was rarely able to apply deep, sustained attention to her independent work, the many aspects of her job that required insight and creativity, and her interactions with her team that made them feel valued and heard.
How to Shift Attention
Jill also learned to use this exercise in the moment, to change to a more effective quadrant when she’s feeling frazzled.
The shift from one mental state to another needs to be deliberate, and can be accomplished by taking a short break and doing something that engages a different part of the brain. (For example, a shift from editing a work document to reading the news isn’t really a break for your brain. Try a conversation with a co-worker on an unrelated topic, a short guided meditation, or a few minutes listening to music instead.)
Another way to shift your mental state is to change your physiology: stand up, move around, take a walk, stretch a bit. (Combining the two techniques works well also: take a walk and chat with someone else, or combine a guided meditation with deep breathing and stretching.)
Then sit back down, create some boundaries in your environment and your technology so you can be undisturbed, and tackle that important task.
To be the leader and mentor her position requires, Jill needs to improve her ability to manage her attention. She also needs to make time for the higher-level activities she was hired for—space to generate ideas and insights, high-concentration time to apply herself fully to complex work, and opportunities to get into flow that will produce the sense of accomplishment that makes her days satisfying.
To devote more focused and mindful time to mentoring her direct reports, here are some of the strategies Jill now uses to be more present with her team:
- Getting clear on her priorities—Since mentoring her direct reports is an explicit and important component of her job, she creates an actionable project with a specific outcome, such as “meet with every team member for 15 minutes every week for 3 months in a row.”
- Eliminating distractions—Because Jill wants to ensure her staff gets her full attention, she puts away her phone and turns off alerts and notifications during those meetings.
- Setting boundaries around meetings—By becoming more judicious about which meetings she attends, and limiting the time on her schedule when others can put meetings, Jill frees up more space in her day to get high priority work done.
- Ensuring her team feels empowered—Instead of being “too available” outside of scheduled meeting times, she lets her team members make their own decisions. During one-on-one meetings, she listens to how they are handling challenges and offers suggestions for the future. This has the dual benefits of helping her team to grow and be more independent, AND giving her more undistracted work time.
These steps also help Jill spend more time in the other quadrants, where she can let her mind wander (to generate insights), be more focused and mindful (for planning and problem solving), and enter flow more often (to apply herself fully and get the most satisfaction from her work).
Like Jill, you can use the 4 Quadrants of Attention Management to regain control over how you spend your days and to accomplish more of what’s important to you. Get started with my Attention Management Assessment.
Practicing attention management will allow you to control your distractions, maximize your focus, be present in your moments, and engage your flow, so that you can maximize both the moments in your life, and the “life in your moments.”