Time Management or Focus Management?

Horse with heart blinders Productivity tools, books and blogs proliferate today.  Time Management techniques, calendars and planners have never waned in popularity through the years.  The introduction of the smart phones and tablet PCs were widely touted as the ultimate way to remain plugged in and achieve the control of our work and home lives of which we always daydreamed.  So why does the average person still complain so often about feelings of being overwhelmed and there just not being enough time?  Is the culprit our understanding how to best utilize all the tools at our disposal?  Are we just inherently lazy?

David Allen, the father of the GTD (Getting Things Done) technique,  recently commented on the impact of smartphones on the GTD system.  Surprisingly, his opinion was that while mobile devices did make managing calendars and communication easier, the impact on the GTD process was minimal. In fact, he comments, “I think it’s as much adding to the distraction factor as it is to the leverage factor.”

So, is our problem one of time management or one of focus?  This is not a new concept.  In fact, Stanford University researchers Ophir, Nass and Wagner reported as early as 2009 that they considered “processing multiple incoming streams of information is considered a challenge for human cognition” (Cognitive control in media multitaskers; 2009).  Their tests showed that mega-multitaskers, rather than performing better, actually had a more difficult time focusing on individual tasks and were more vulnerable to environmental distractions.

Have we been striving for the wrong goal all these years as we learned to multitask and deal with increasing streams of information? Would our time have been better spent honing our ability to focus intently and think deeply and methodically about each project on our plate individually? Equine trainers recognized the value of decreasing outside distractions for their horses long ago and created blinders for their animals to wear. These trainers found that horses wearing blinders were much calmer and better able to channel all their energies forward to the tasks they were being asked to complete. Their overall performance improved significantly.  Do we need to think about developing our own form of “blinders” to everything but our most important projects?

A number of people have added a daily block of time for “being totally unplugged”.  They solely focus on a chosen task for that time block and do not allow interruptions for any reason. Knowledge management expert Thomas Davenport (“The Attention Economy”, 2002 and “Thinking for a Living”, 2005, to list only a few of his books) is currently a visiting professor at Harvard Business School while on leave from his post as Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College. In his 2001 article, “The rise of knowledge towards attention management”, published in the Journal of Knowledge Management, Davenport addresses the importance of focus; he states:

” One of the key battlegrounds in the future knowledge war will be the management of attention: understanding how it is allocated by individuals and organizations, knowing how to capture it more effectively for important information and knowledge, using technology to get, keep, and protect it.”

All the skill we can develop at finding and organizing information is for naught if we are so involved in keeping all our balls in the air that we never manage to stop, focus, synthesize and effectively apply the information we have gathered. We are not managing knowledge or adding to collective wisdom until that process occurs. A sobering concept, but, as Davenport reminds us, one that is key to our continued success and development as knowledge workers.

Readers, what other techniques have you implemented to help you in dealing with focus or attention management?  I’d love to hear from you.

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