How to Fix Your Attention Span
Learning to focus your attention on the right things.
“What captures your attention controls your life,” says Karen Anderson, an award-winning journalist and writer for the Harvard Business Review. I believe she’s right. The only problem is, the things that often capture my attention are not things I want controlling my life.
For many of us, what controls our life is buried in the busyness of the days we live. We try to pare down the tasks we manage, but like the rising tide, the list keeps returning and the end result is we’re drowned by our own out-of-control workflow. Jeff Shinabarger, author of the book, More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity, says this:
There was a time, not so long ago, when the polite answer to the question, “How are you?” was, “Fine.” It seems that busy is the new fine. We look at one another with that shake of the head, sideways smirk and glossy eyes, proclaiming our busyness. This shared response succinctly identifies a recent cultural shift: We now determine the significance of a person by how busy they are. Somehow, busy has become better than fine.
Let’s be honest, if our personal attention was an economy most of us would be on the verge of a market crash. We’re hit with so much information every day that we’re often on the verge of panic mode.
Most of the daily content we consume—what gets our attention—is just a distraction from the real work we’re called to do. And, in this crazy information age, we need to be vigilant with our attention. We’re only given so much to spend. Herbert A. Simon, a Nobel Prize winner, once wrote: “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a death of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”
Many leading thinkers today call this “attention economics.” The premise: When we give our attention to something, we’re always taking it away from something else.
We need to spend our time on the “right” things because our personal attention economy has a limited supply. It’s basic mathematics. The things we let into our lives control the trajectory of our influence and relationships. Much like the shifting of the tectonic plates—it’s unnoticeable to the naked eye, but it is definitely happening—and the results often cause disasters.
What if we approached our days with more intentionality? What if we chose the best things to give our attention to and filtered out the flotsam and jetsam with greater precision? What if we chose something better than busy, and we unapologetically dropped unnecessary tasks? What if we spent our time and attention on the things that have the most value?
In Timothy Ferris’ book, The Four Hour Work Week, he poses a powerful time-management question: If you could only work two hours a day, what would you need to accomplish?
What are the most important tasks, relationships, objectives that you need to complete on a given day or week? If you don’t know the answer to that question, find it. What would it look like if you governed your personal attention economy with more wisdom and, well, attention? What would happen if you checked your email less, stayed clear of unnecessary distractions and started every day with a clear sense of the core objectives you needed to accomplish? Now, think about the impact of that life pattern over weeks and months—what would happen to your life?
Nobody likes hanging out with the person who’s always distracted, highly anxious and looks like he or she doesn’t have time. Trust me, you don’t want to be the “busy” friend.
However, in our culture, one that values “busy” over productive, it’s a daily battle—sometimes more with our egos than actual tasks.
So, curate the things you give your attention to with greater precision. Don’t let the wrong things control your life. You just might find out that your relationships are recharged and the margins give you more room to be awesome.
Because it’s true—what captures your attention controls your life.