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Maximizing attention for maximum productivity

"They are coming for every second of your life." – Bo Burnham, comedian

This quote rings true in today's digital age. Social media notifications, emails, phone calls, and endless online content can easily take up all our time and leave us feeling drained and unproductive. Managing attention allows us to safeguard our focus on what is most important.

Maximizing attention rather than managing time is a better strategy for improving productivity because it allows for better focus on the task at hand and leads to better results. 

By focusing on attention, you can minimize distractions and interruptions and work more efficiently. 

To manage your attention effectively, take a few steps.

  1. Identify your most productive hours (which completed in the previous step’s exercise) and allocate your high-energy time for the most important tasks. 

  2. Set specific times for checking emails and notifications to avoid distractions during work time. 

  3. Create a conducive work environment that reduces external distractions such as noise or interruptions.

Use attention paths to get into focus zones

Attention paths are a way of aligning your intentions (what you need and want to do) with what you must have to deliver a quality outcome.

There are different paths to manage attention, and you’re already probably using more conventional ones like due dates, priority levels, and so on. The problem with those is they have limits and can often cause anxiety. We tend to overestimate what we can do in a day and things like due dates and levels of priority can actually divert us more than move us forward. Having additional attention paths to take is going to improve your productiveness and your relationship with time. 

So let’s take a look at them.

The 5 types of attention paths that we’re going to focus on are as follows:

  1. Time: The time you will need to complete a task. If it’s going to take longer than 30 minutes to complete a task, break it into smaller pieces, like 5 min, 15, etc, with the max being 30 min.

  2. Resource: The person, place, or thing you’ll need to complete the task.

  3. Energy: The energy level you’ll need to complete the task. You’ve already done this and can efer to the last step’s exercise for hep with this).

  4. Activity: The type of activity that is required to complete the task. So if you need to write a blog post, the activity is writing. The verb is always the answer.

  5. Theme: The theme that is best suited for you to align the task with (A themed block of time can be a day, a set of hours, a week, or even a month.) 

Below would be an example of Daily Themes:

To remember them easily, they spell out the acronym TREAT. Think of it this way: when you use attention paths, you treat yourself and your work better.

These 5 types of attention paths can help you manage your attention effectively by providing a framework for prioritizing tasks and minimizing distractions. By considering these paths, you can essentially filter your focus, resulting in better productivity and outcomes.

How to use attention paths

I’ve put together an exercise that will help you get better acquainted with the concept of attention paths.

  1. Start by identifying the different types of activities you will engage in throughout the day. 

  2. Assign an attention path for each task. Place the attention path on the far right side of the task or, if you’re using an app, as a tag or label. Use the criteria above to help select the attention path types that are ideal for you for each task on your list.

  3. Start working using one of your attention paths first, not focusing on the details of the tasks themselves as your driving force, but the attention path instead.

  4. Use tools like the Pomodoro Technique or distraction-blocking apps to help you stay focused on the task at hand. You can set a certain amount of time to focus on this way of working through your to-do list if it helps, and then use The Pomodoro Technique to help track things along the way.

  5. Reflect on your progress after working through that first attention path and evaluate how focusing on one form of attention path affected your productivity.

  6. Repeat 1-5 for tasks using a different type of attention path until you have completed all of your tasks.

Note: The types of attention paths are structured in order from easiest to most challenging to use. If you feel stuck on this at first, start by using time as your primary attention path. Then move on to others as you feel more confident. The aim is to batch your tasks by attention path instead of by due date, project involved, or – worst of all – going through your to-do list in sequential order.

The attention paths in action

Jack, a software developer, was struggling to meet his deadlines. He was working long hours, but still falling short (sound familiar?). He decided to focus on maximizing attention rather than managing time. He started using The Pomodoro Technique.

The Pomodoro Technique is a time-management method designed to improve productivity and focus. It involves working in 25-minute intervals called Pomodoros, followed by 5 minute breaks. After 4 Pomodoros, a longer break of 15-30 minutes is taken. The technique helps maintain focus, avoid distractions, and prevent burnout.

He also started using apps and tools that block distractions. There are several apps available that can help you block distractions and amplify focus, such as Freedom, Forest, RescueTime, Focus@Will, and StayFocusd. These apps help you avoid social media, email, and other distractions, and provide features like timers, alarms, and website blockers to help you stay on task. By focusing on the task at hand and minimizing distractions — thus safeguarding and harnessing his attention — Jack was able to improve his productivity and deliver his projects on time.

Jack found his own way to guide his attention. He used 2 different paths to manage his attention: Time (with The Pomodoro Technique) and Resource (the apps he used). Now it’s time to learn how you can use “attention paths” to do the same for you.

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