Attention Management: What Is It, and Why Is It Important

We all have probably read a hundred few blogs and articles about time management by now, haven’t we? But we still find ourselves stuck in routines which seem to leave us with so little time. Maybe, it is time to think differently. Maybe, instead or along with time management, we need to start thinking about attention management. Read on.

The concept of attention management goes back to 1890 when psychologist William James talked about it in his book The Principles of Psychology vol 1. In today’s time we have Maura Thomas telling us all about attention management, what it means in our modern context, and how do we practice.

Given that many of us are working from home at certain times, with fifty tabs open, and a few hundred emails arriving every morning, attention management seems to be the thing to get a grasp about. Without further ado, let us delve into it!

The Definition And The Intention:

Maura Thomas writes in an article for HBR:

Attention management is the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximizing focus, so that you can unleash your genius. It’s about being intentional instead of reactive. It is the ability to recognize when your attention is being stolen (or has the potential to be stolen) and to instead keep it focused on the activities you choose. 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.

That sounds so simple, right? But let us take an example to understand the intention of attention management more clearly. Mr. C had decided to finish that report he had been meaning to write since Monday. It was Wednesday today and he had decided to finish it, no matter what. Just as he was about to sit down and open the file, he heard the ping of his email. He instantly checked. He soon began to check other emails in the inbox as well.

The report just lies there in the corner and before he knew it, the report has been pushed to the next day, and he wonders where did the time go. This is an example of being reactive instead of intentional.

Although, being distracted by notifications is just one trivial example, it is a highly relatable and real one at that.

Most of the times, we understand our priorities and our goals. What we don’t realise is that tiny distractions can derail us from our track very easily.

Most of the times, we recognise when our attention is being stolen. What we don’t realise is that we have the choice to change our focus at our will, with a little effort. The question is, how?

Control Your Technology and Environment:

Take control of your notifications and devices! One simple strategy is to get rid of push notifications, or even notification sounds if possible. That sounds too unrealistic? You need all of that to keep track of emergencies? Then take control of your environment! Virtual people in the distance may need your attention asap, sure, but you may tell the real people in your environment to keep a distance if you know you are going to be working on a task that needs as much as of your undivided attention as possible. You can do things like making use of DND signs, going to a different part of your office/home.

 You can involve your colleagues and decide on a time during the day when everyone would work heads down and hands on their respective important tasks, for a fixed number of minutes or hours, no chatting, no breaks.

There is still something unbelievable about the fact that a simple notification distracts us, right? Maura Thomas recognises that and gives us some food for thought:

…the problem isn’t just that an email interrupts your work. It’s also the fact that being tethered to your email inbox conditions you to expect an interruption every few minutes, which chips away at your attention span. You then become so afraid of forgetting to do some small task — like sending an email or forwarding a document — that you start to do everything as soon as you’ve thought of it; but then you end up getting sucked into your overflowing inbox before you know it. Moreover, knowing that you have a catalogue of all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips — in terms of the internet on your smartphone — makes it difficult to be comfortable in a state of “I don’t know,” and hard to avoid the distracting temptation to “find out now.”

So, what do we do about that?

Control Your Thoughts and Behaviour:

This is where that little effort comes in. Know thyself, and recognise when you are likely to zone out. And practice catching yourself just as your mind begins to wander away. Maybe even keep a teeny tiny treat for yourself ready which you can use to motivate yourself to finish the designated task.

One very important thing to do as much as possible during these times of ‘deep work’ is to focus on only one task. Keep just one tab open, and direct all your attention into it. Next hour, you can work with a different task. But the point is to avoid multi-tasking as and when you can. We understand it is a highly unrealistic strategy to use these days, and that is why we slipped it in at the end. But there’s no harm in at least trying, right?

As you must have realised, understanding attention management and its strategies is ridiculously and deceivingly simple. We all know what we need to do. The key lies in recognising that what we are doing with these simple strategies is making space for our priorities.

Prioritizing: The Pareto Way!

pareto principle image


You have a pile of tasks waiting to be handled.

Your to-do list has extended to pages.

The list of things to be accomplished feels endless. And you don’t know where to begin.

Above everything, it feels daunting!

In such situations, the Pareto Principle can help one out.


First Things First, What is the Pareto Principle?

An Italian economist and philosopher named Vilfredo Federic Damaso Pareto came up with the concept back in 1895. Nature has a way of giving humans ideas.

An apple led to a major scientific breakthrough for Sir Isaac Newton. Similarly, observing growth patterns of pea-plants led to a sociological, economical breakthrough for Mr. Pareto.

He noticed that only 20% of the pea plants in his garden accounted to 80% of the healthy pea pods produced.

He undertook some research and found out that only 20% of the population of Italy owned 80% of the entire land of the country.

He looked up industrial trends back then and found out around 80% of production came from only about 20% of industries. The Pareto Principle thus was born:

80% of the results will come from only about 20% of action.


Are the Numbers confusing?

Let us take some more modern examples, without the numbers.

Most of the times (80%) we dine in at the same set of favourite restaurants (20%) from all the options available. And most of the times we order more or less the same set of delicacies from the vast menu.

Most of the times, we wear only few sets of clothes from all the outfits we own.

Most of the times, we spend time at only the same few corners of house, no matter how big the place is.

Some of us have installed a lot of apps on our phones, but we generally use only the select ones.

There are a lot of options available. But we make a choice. We prioritize.

How does this apply to time management and to-do lists and projects/assignments , you ask.

Read on.

Just as there is a selection and prioritizing of the above mentioned simple day-to-day aspects of life, we can use that strategy in managing our tasks too.

And let us be honest, it is not always about favourites. We choose the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the apps we use according to the context and what the situation demands.

20% of your activities will amount to 80% of your results. 20% of your clients/customers will amount to 80% of your successes.

20% of what you do will add value to 80% of what you do.


One very important point to be noted comes up here:

You only need to devote 20% of your time and action to get done with 80% of your work. You actually don’t need to work day and night to get things done.


What can you do about your working habits while keeping the Pareto Principle in mind? How do you pinpoint that golden 20%?

The Importance Rating:

Don’t make a to-do list randomly. Prioritise the tasks in it.

  • Which tasks need urgent attention?
  • Which tasks can wait, and for how long?
  • Which tasks need further thinking?

The key does not lie in over-working to the point of exhaustion. It actually lies in working smart. It involves choosing what is the most important thing that should be finished first. And then the second, third, fourth and so on.


The Individual Consideration:

As you prioritize and select tasks also consider the following:

  • Are you capable of finishing the task alone or do you need a hand?
  • Are you and only you capable of finishing the task?
  • Can you delegate it?

It involves making a choice about which tasks you and only you should finish, and which tasks should be delegated or which tasks should involve a team.

So the next time you feel overwhelmed by a pile of work to be done, take a pause and think about the Pareto Principle. What is that 20% of the task that needs to be done first, so that it finishes 80% of the work? It is true hard work never killed anyone but it is smart work that gave people a much needed work-life balance!