Use Attention Management to Fill the Gaps

use attention management to fill the gaps

By Kacye Benson

THERE ARE 1,440 minutes in a day, and regardless of what fills those minutes, we all have a limited amount of time to get things done. Managers and leaders often use a plethora of buzzwords in an attempt to effectively manage our time, prioritize tasks, and disconnect when our window closes. But is that enough?

The theory of time management came about during the Industrial Revolution and the rise of employment in factories when people had to learn to “live by the clock rather than live by the sun.” In 1911, Fredrick Winslow published “The Principles of Scientific Management” for managers to analyze the best way for workers to complete their jobs and separate actions to eliminate unnecessary motions.

Today, we block our schedules to complete tasks based on what we believe to be an adequate window. We believe when the time allocated elapses, we should be done. Often, that is not the case. In most cases, we do not get anywhere close to completing the task, which leaves us scrambling to find more time in our calendars to finish the task we planned to finish. Are we just less effective today than our predecessors?

Time management has had its place since the Industrial Revolution and was an effective theory until the emergence of the Digital Revolution, also known as the Third Industrial Revolution. Present-day concepts of time management are not only ineffective but have created more problems than solutions. This theory fails in our personal and professional lives due to the digital age we live in. We are inundated with notifications and information. Our phones, tablets, watches, and computers alert us to everything going on around us. The irony is that we use these devices to “enhance” our lives. However, these are the culprits to reducing our focus.

Scientific studies show that the term “multitasking” is a fallacy that we allow ourselves to believe. When we multitask, we feel that we are completing tasks faster, therefore, getting more done. According to research, our brain can focus only on a single task. The next time you think you’re multitasking, you are actually just switching back and forth between multiple singular tasks repeatedly.

The truth is multitasking results in wasted time due to context switching, and our work becomes prone to increased errors. When multitasking, our brain hits a bottleneck that does not allow information processing for two simultaneous tasks, leaving only the most essential information.

Attention economics is an approach to managing information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. According to Matthew Crawford, “Attention is a resource – a person has only so much of it.” In this perspective, Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck, in their book The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business, defines the concept of attention as: “Attention is focused mental engagement on a particular item of information. Items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act.”

As alerts, phone calls, texts, and other previously unavailable distractions become a part of our everyday lives; attention becomes a limiting factor as we try to consume information. Our brain filters information by putting the most vital information first while leaving other details out. Now, it is said that the genuine cost of multitasking can cause you to lose 40% of productivity. The Institute of Psychiatry found that multitasking shows a temporary ten-point drop in IQ, more than our mental effectiveness while under the influence of marijuana. Additionally, a study completed by the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers. This study found that workers were interrupted, on average, every 11 minutes. The study also found that it took 23 minutes to return to their original task.

This “task switching” involves several parts of your brain, including the prefrontal cortex that is involved in switching and focusing attention, the posterior parietal lobe, which activates rules for each task you switch to, the anterior cingulate gyrus monitors for errors, and the pre-motor cortex prepares for you to move. Given that attention is a cognitive process involving a selective concentration of resources and information, attention can be considered a limited resource.

After examining what science says about our ability to multitask, we know that we cannot, but we continue to apply multitasking to every part of our lives. The question now becomes why. Why do we think we can multitask even when all the information tells us we cannot?

A dopamine-driven feedback loop is a self-perpetuating circuit fueled by how the neurotransmitter works with the brain’s reward system. Feedback loops, in general, are circuits that return output as input to a given system to drive future operations and, in this case, behaviors. Dopamine is associated with “seeking” behavior. Once we feel that we have a perceived accomplishment through multitasking, dopamine is released, and we reengage in the behavior to release more dopamine.

Social media is an example of a dopamine feedback look. We search for entertainment or information as we scroll through our social media newsfeeds in anticipation of pleasure when something we seek pops up. The number of interesting posts in the newsfeed does not matter because intermittent reinforcement of finding relevant posts reinforces the behavior and subsequent dopamine release. Because our body does not have a mechanism for satiety built-in, the dopamine feedback loop allows the behavior to continue for much longer than we intend and much longer than the perceived psychological rewards.

use attention management to fill the gaps

Now that we know the issues with time management and why those issues exist, is there any hope in how to manage our time more constructively? The answer is yes! By moving away from the concept of time management to a new philosophy: attention management. Attention management adapts how we allocate our time and uses other methods to reduce our need to divide our attention during our tasks.

First things first, when you are working on something that requires a high focus, turn off your notifications. Seriously … how often do you get a notification that requires your immediate attention? Let people know to call you if there is an emergency but set boundaries on the definition of an emergency. This will be extremely tough at first. Remember the dopamine loop? It will nag at you, but letting go of your notifications on your phone, watch, and computer is freedom you may not realize exists.

Second, you must set boundaries. You cannot achieve focus without boundaries. Without focus, you are multitasking. Set up designated times for your team to meet with you. Instead of having others figure out your calendar, set a daily or weekly time designated for this purpose. This allows you to completely focus on the team’s needs instead of being partially available because you are not focused. How often does someone come into your office, and you have a complete conversation while trying to send an important email? When the conversation is over, what was in the email? What was the outcome of the conversation? You probably have no idea.

Set focus times for specific tasks. Find out where your values are and prioritize your day on those values. For example, if you know you need to keep your email checked, set focus time twice a day where you only go through your email. Turn off the notifications, close the door, eliminate distractions, and get it done.

Also, create procedures within the organization, when emailing, to carbon copy (cc) team members that may need to know the information, but it is not a priority and does not need action or response. Set rules in your email to send the cc’d email to its own inbox that you check every few days.

In summary, multitasking is not an effective way to manage our daily workloads. Our brains have a limited capacity to process information, and multitasking further reduces our productivity and quality of work. With this knowledge, our best approach to managing our tasks is to create opportunities to focus on the tasks we need to complete or value the most.

Finding ways to create focus time is most effective when we create boundaries, develop procedures on communicating internally (i.e., when to call, email, and carbon copy), and commit to the time to focus on a single task. As organizations are having difficulty finding talent in today’s labor market, many leaders are looking for a way to manage their existing teams’ capacity. While time management was effective in the past, our digital world has changed how we should manage our time and attention.

Kacye Benson has over 15 years of experience in HR with a specialty in government and non-profit sectors. Her expertise includes employee relations, compensation, performance management, risk management, conflict resolution, training and development, organizational development, payroll management, leading strategic initiatives, and elevating cultures through positive empowerment.

Kacye earned a Master’s in Public Administration from Marist College and a B.S. in Criminal Justice. Kacye is a trained mediator and holds a Society for Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP).

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