Taking Back Your Time and Attention
We lock our doors to protect our homes and possessions, but what about the two things that are even more valuable — our time and attention?
There are certain things we do to guard against theft of things we value. We lock our doors when we leave our homes. We may set up an alarm system. We may ask our neighbor or a friend to watch over our place when we’re away for long periods of time.
The point is, we don’t want to lose the things we value, and so we safeguard them. It’s about more than the possessions, though. We also don’t want people intruding upon our personal sanctuary — our private space. Even extroverts have their own personal private space. It is as basic an instinct as there is.
But there are two things that, though they are valuable, we don’t tend to guard all that well: time and attention. Though I think that nearly everyone acknowledges that these things are important, we often fail to act accordingly.
Here are some classic daily thieves of your time and attention. Consider them tiny thieves sneaking in through the open windows of your mind:
- push notifications
- conversations and noise you’re overhearing around you
- the TV or radio in the background
- multitasking (working on two or more tasks simultaneously that each require a different mental activity)
- poorly prepared to-do lists (where tasks are vague or have inaccurate dates or contexts)
That last two are beasts when it comes to stealing your time. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself this: how often do you find yourself not going down the list of your action items in order —but rather just doing whatever pops into your head (or worse, whatever pops into your inbox)? How often do you find yourself doing something that isn’t even on your to-do list? Lastly, how often do you find yourself multitasking by choice?
Studies on multitasking have confirmed something that we may know, but tend to ignore:
Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error….even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.
40%!!!!!! That adds up to just over 6 hours per day, 45 hours per week, and 2,330 hours per year stolen away by multitasking. It’s like allowing thieves to roam into your pad and steal nearly half of your possessions.
We Simply Can’t Help Ourselves
But why is this? Why do we lock our houses, vehicles, and possessions securely, but do little to keep our time and attention from being stolen away by every little thing?
When was the last time you sat working on some project as you watched TV? What about when you pulled out your phone during a conversation because you felt it buzz? Do you find yourself checking your email while you’re working on something, without taking a defined break — with a hard start and stop — you just wander over to it? What about your feeds on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media services? These are all instances of theft.
But here’s the thing: they’re actually worse than mere theft. It’s more like being swindled by a con man. You’re willingly giving up your time and attention — and for what? For the false promise of some momentary pleasure? It’s worse than you think. The notifications and distractions play a role in dual systems in our brains:
these two systems, the “wanting” (dopamine) and the “liking” (opioid) are complementary. The wanting system propels you to action and the liking system makes you feel satisfied and therefore pause your seeking. If your seeking isn’t turned off at least for a little while, then you start to run in an endless loop…It’s easy to get in a dopamine induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text…Dopamine is also stimulated by unpredictability. When something happens that is not exactly predictable, that stimulates the dopamine system. Our emails and twitters and texts show up, but you don’t know exactly when they will, or who they will be from. It’s unpredictable. This is exactly what stimulates the dopamine system.
We’re getting high on distractions, and it’s messing with a system that has for thousands of years kept us alive and thriving. But these highs, of course, come with brutal lows.
A handful of studies have shown that once you shift your attention off of your work for even a minute, it can take as much as 23 minutes to focus on that work again. That hit you get from responding to those notifications is accompanied by a huge cost: you lose your attention, and as a result you lose time.
Adjusting Your Frame of Mind
For those doing critical or creative work, this grand larceny of our time and attention can be a self-imposed death sentence. Momentum is so key to the kind of thought demanded by strategic or creative projects — none of us can afford afford to break it. But breaking it is so damned easy; and it keeps getting easier the more we do it.
The flood of information coming in through social media networks and news feeds has embedded in it the premise that what it contains is important — making us feel like we’re missing out on vital information. But are we? Do we need to know everything that is happening — as it’s happening? Probably not.
You don’t need to know all of the new developments, all of the updates. Ask yourself: are you interested in making news, or making history?
I’m not going to suggest what so many overly bold and dismissive writers before me have done, and suggest that you quit social media. I won’t suggest you stop watching TV, stop consuming news, and just read the great books all day long. I think that’s overkill.
For most of us, a cognitive hermitage away from the world is not the answer. It does you no good to block out the entire world. You still need the world; you wouldn’t make any sense without it. A worthwhile goal is to make sure that the converse is also true — that the world wouldn’t make any sense without you in it.
So once again, it’s about developing a process for guarding your time and attention. Some best practices (which I keep trying, yet failing to fully follow):
- Establish windows of time to check your social media accounts (and do nothing else — so it’s guilt-free).
- Keep and constantly review a list of your projects and tasks.
- Keep and safeguard a calendar (which means not putting items on it that don’t have to be done on that day and/or at that time).
These are simple suggestions, and when followed, they’re effective. But simple does not mean easy. I struggle daily with these, but knowing that they’re live options helps me get back on track from time to time.