Year for Productivity Session 4: Getting Things Done (GTD) or To Dream the Impossible Dream

year_productivity_graphic_4What does it mean to be productive? Working efficiently, getting the most done with the least effort and time. Working efficiently requires CLARITY about what projects need to be done, what the project looks like when it is done, what deliverables it will produce, and what resources (human and other) are required to produce those deliverables. Clarity needs an organizational tool that can capture all those pieces of information. The human brain, by itself, is not enough. It can only pay attention to a few things at a time.

To-do lists were created to help fill this need. Sometimes they are prioritized, sometimes organized by date due on a calendar. Most of us have made lists only to find it is one more thing to keep track of, so adding to the clutter instead of reducing it. David Allen in his megahit Getting Things Done mentions a woman who, after attending one of his seminars,
looked woefully at her to-do list and remarked, “Boy, that was an amorphous blob of undoability!” (Allen, p. 27)

The core process that I teach for mastering the art of relaxed and controlled knowledge work is a five-stage method for managing workflow. No matter what the setting, there are five discrete stages that we go through in order to deal with our work. We (1) collect things that command our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do about them; and (3) organize the results, which we (4) review as options for what we choose to (5) do.

(p. 33). So to-do lists are a part of Allen’s system, but a small part and fairly useless without the rest of the system. This lesson was originally designed to be on to-do lists, but like a Pac Man critter it got eaten by the GTD system. The bad news is that there really is no substitute for reading the whole Getting Things Done book. While blog posts like this one can summarize the parts of the GTD system, and Allen’s video embedded below also give a sense of how GTD works, they sound a bit arbitrary without reading how he explains (a) the rationale behind the system; and (b) the steps required to implement the system.

Every person writing about GTD is going to view it and explain it differently. Each mind has perceptual filters that highlight what it sees as the most important elements of the system. So what is in this post is my inadequate way of interpreting the GTD system, and it is hoped that those of you who have used it will jump in with your comments on its utility and how you have used it. We also hope that those who haven’t used it jump in to ask questions of those who have.

So remember that, in our view, the purpose of any such system is to provide CLARITY, which in turn produces workflow EFFICIENCY. Allen is convinced that things are in our minds because we haven’t yet decided what we have to do, and what actions are required to accomplish what we need to do. Therefore the brain continually pays attention to these things which eats up all of our focus.

Therefore, the system starts with what I call (Allen does not) a data dump. Put everything you are committed to down somewhere. Does not matter whether you write it on paper or in electronic form. Does not matter, for now, whether it is a professional or personal commitment. Does not matter for now whether it is an action or a project or a category of work. Just put it all down to begin the process of getting it out of your brain and into a system. Keep adding to it as your brain remembers one more thing. And one more thing. And, hey, oh yeah, whatever you do, don’t forget THAT!

Once you have the data dump, you can start organizing it. Most things should fall into certain categories. Scan your list and then create new lists based on your review. The first is a project, something that has a timeline associated with it. To do a project requires actions, and the actions need to be done by a certain date. We’ll talk more about projects shortly. Secondly, scan your list for items which are actions that need to be done. Most of these will fall under projects, and if they don’t fit into a project you’ve identified, add a new project to that list. Now add your actions under the project they fall into. Your last category is, well, categories. These are things you have to accomplish for your work or personal life but do not have an associated timeline. You can organize them similarly to projects.

Now go back to your projects list. Can you identify the next action that needs to be taken to get this project done? It is likely, that for most projects and categories, you haven’t done the clarifying process of defining exactly what the project is. What is the reason for doing the project? Why? Envision what the project looks like when it is done. What are the required deliverables? Is it your thesis or dissertation? The syllabus for your class? For a Librarian, perhaps it is a guide for a subject or a class, or an outline of an instructional session on finding and using library research resources. Next is the question of HOW? What actions are required to accomplish the deliverables? What decisions do you have to make in order to do the required actions?

Many people have reported having trouble coming up with specific actions that are action items – things to be done. Instead they tend to be fuzzy formulations of goals, say, for example, “write dissertation” instead of (a) search the article-indexing databases in my field. (b) capture the useful citations in EndNote (c) download the papers into Mendeley. (d) search the library catalog for books on my topic. (e) check out the books… and so on. For a librarian a project to create a course guide might be (a) search for other guides on the same or similar topic (b) get ideas from those guides for resources and design of my own guide (c) create guide (d) add resources to guide (e) if the guide is for a course, run it by the professor for approval and (f) publish the guide.  For a professor or teaching assistant, a category of work might be Instruction, while a project might be teach class Ed Tech 2010: Instructional Design.

Once you have everything out of your mind, where your brain can see it, and sorted into projects with their associated actions and categories of things that need doing but don’t have a time line, then it is time to make decisions. This can be the hardest part, and the point where many systems break down. Allen has a useful workflow diagram on p. 38. If something is actionable, then do it, delegate it, or defer it. If something is not actionable, then trash it, add it to a someday maybe list of things to do eventually when the time is right, or add it to a file of reference material – facts you need to know to inform actions, but are not themselves actions.

Allen stresses that for the system to work, the brain has to trust that it works. For it to do so, the final important part of the system is a review. Allen suggests reviewing your lists weekly. Try that until you get a feel for what works for you. If your brain starts nagging you again about things you haven’t done yet, you’ve left the review for too long. Also be sure you have made enough decisions about what actions to take. Some of them may be wrong, but you can go back and correct these. Decision making is a habit that has to be cultivated and gets easier with time.

So those are the basic elements of the GTD system. (1) Do a data dump of all your commitments, (2) sort them into projects, actions, and categories, (3) make decisions, (4) act on the decisions, and (5) review the system for next actions and evaluations of the status of projects and other work.

There are, of course, a lot more details, and it is advisable to read the whole book through at least once to see if Getting Things Done is the system you want to adopt. There are alternative systems out there. One good alternative is the one found in Maura Thomas’ Personal Productivity Secrets. If you have tried or developed an alternative system or your own twist on GTD then let us know about it in the comments.

Lots of software has been developed to make adopting GTD easier. Our suggested readings includes a site that lists and reviews such software. For myself so far I use Evernote, as it as adaptable, easy to search, and works on almost any device. Again please add comments to let us know what system/software/hardware you use.

To bring this lesson back full circle, remember that it is clarity that leads to efficiency. If your system isn’t working for you, examine each part to see if a part or parts isn’t clear enough. For a project, perhaps your mind isn’t clear on what the project is to accomplish. Try again to visualize what it will look like when finished. Or perhaps your list of actions needed to finish the project is missing a crucial step. This is another part of reviewing your system.

May your work be as clear as the light of day!

Suggested Readings

From David Allen:

Allen, D. (2001). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. New York: Viking.

David Allen Website and podcast blog:

David Allen Productive Living Newsletter:

Getting Things Done Page of Productivity Tools for Graduate Students Class Guide:  Includes 45 minute video of David Allen explaining GTD:


Items relating to GTD but not by Allen:

“Revisiting To-Do Lists as Record Keeping”.  Profhacker, Dec. 13, 2012, keeping to-do lists as records of accomplishments.

GTD Times: the HUB for all things GTD:
GTD Infographic –  A Google Image search turns up many /gtd Infographics.  We think this is one of the best.

GTD-Related Software:

164 Researched GTD Software Programs and CountingInteractive GTD Software Comparison Table:
New Summary of “task management” software for educators:

Selected Alternative Systems to GTD:
Thomas, M. (2012). Personal productivity secrets: Do what you never thought possible with your time and attention … and regain control of your life. Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley.
Forget your To-Do Lists:
For Further Exploration and Insights:
(1)  Do the data dump as described in the lesson.
(2)  Sort it into projects, actions, and categories of work.
Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/

Tuesday Tool Tip: Otherinbox’s Organizer

monkey computer tools

There are several different flavors of tools floating around the web who all promise to solve all your inbox problems and enable you to achieve greater efficiency in managing your email.  One of the more promising applications is the Organizer by Otherinbox .  I was intrigued by its claims and the wide variety of email platforms that it will handle.  I was hoping to introduce our readers to a wonderful email handling solution, so I decided to give it a try.

I installed Organizer on both my Yahoo and Gmail accounts.  (It also runs on AOL and iCloud.)  While these accounts were not linked, I made the mistake of first creating my Organizer account when installing the service on my Yahoo account, and then adding an installation on my Gmail account without creating a totally new Organizer account.    Within a short time I realized that only one daily Organizer email was being sent to my Yahoo account and it combined the folders (tags) created in BOTH Gmail and Yahoo accounts.  This could have been cool, but upon clicking on the organized Gmail items in the summary memo, the system was confused, first asking me to log into Gmail, but still being unable to link to the specific email showing up in the Organizer summary email. This was frustrating.  I do not recommend linking more than one email account to this service for that reason unless you are able to create two separate Organizer accounts.

Upon installing, Organizer started working right away.  Don’t install this service until you are able to work outside your email on other projects for several hours as Organizer will be trying to sort and file your current inbox.  For me, those inboxes were substantial and Organizer sorted what it could, but I never achieved anything close to a zero inbox, though I have worked with the system, tweaking folders, adding folders, “teaching” it where to file certain email addresses, etc.

I discovered a number of Pros and Cons to Organizer during my experiment:


  • My installation doesn’t distinguish between Gmail and Yahoo emails being organized.
  • Since it works on email address as the sort key, trying to send emails to different OIB folders will confuse the system.  Likewise, once you send an email to an OIB box, you will need to be prepared for all subsequent emails sent from address to be automatically put into that box.  This seems like an obvious characteristic of creating a filter, but one that I had not thought through with regards to consequences.  I did not realize how often I made evaluations and treated emails from the same address differently…whether that meant saving, filing or deleting them. For example, I have a number of FeedBlitz emails from various feeds.  I would not optimally sort all of those together into the same folder since they are on different topics.  You can remove an address from Organizer’s sort list and send it back to your inbox, but if you hand file a lot of emails into OIB folders once you review them, Organizer will “recognize” the email again and start sorting that address to the last OIB folder location you chose.
  • Organizer’s Daily Digest is its summary notice of emails that the system has filed.  I like the format of this email as it lists every email it has sorted since the last time the Digest was published.  I have not been able to nail down how often during the day Organizer actually scans my new emails and files them.  I have seen emails normally sorted still in my inbox in the mornings at times, but also seen emails which arrive during the day go to my OIB file folders before I see them pass the inbox as well.  This is a little confusing to me since I end up checking the individual OIB folders anyway if I want to be sure I don’t miss emails that arrive between the delivery times of the once daily “Daily Digest”.
  • My organized mind still feels the urge to “clean out” the OIB folders of “junk” that I don’t want to hang onto once I’ve seen it.  I have discovered that I already had been doing a pretty good job of quickly sorting emails as they come in. While it is nice to have all Shopping emails together in one place when I want to purge/sort, it is still somewhat irritating to have to go through each folder.
  • After a month, I find I’m getting tired of teaching and correcting Organizer.  It is doing a lot of things well, but there is still clutter and misfiled emails to correct/consider. I’ve started wondering how much time it is actually “saving” and how much time it is “costing” me.


  • It is easy to create and customize folders/tags for Organizer.  Just create a folder or tag with the folder name you want and begin that name with “OIB “.  I created “OIB Astronomy”, “OIB dogs”, “OIB authors”, etc. and then placed the emails in each of those folders as appropriate.  Organizer “learned” from my example and then sent all subsequent emails from those addresses to the new folders.
  • I like that expired offers (shopping in particular) are automatically deleted from the folders after several days.
  •  The most significant plus for me is that Organizer has made me think through how I deal with email and given me several good ideas about possible filters I would (or sometimes would NOT) want to set up on my own.  I can apply these lessons to my work email box and other accounts that Otherinbox does not currently support.


I will be disabling Organizer from my email accounts in the near future.  I have found that I prefer using my own foldering system that I do my hand.  Experiencing Organizer has made me think more about filters that I would find helpful.  I will probably create a few of those for specialized categories of emails, but I’ll be using the filtering features of my individual email accounts instead of another outside application

Don’t just take my word for it! If Organizer intrigues you, try it out for yourself.  Even if you do not find it to be the tool for you, I can guarantee that it will make you consider email organization in a new way.  Or if you have found another email organizer tool, tell us about your experiences with it, good or bad.

Link Roundup #5

$99 Tablets and the Fine Line Between Useful and Useless. Tablets this cheap are bound to be used in the education market. This article provides a good summary of the pros and cons.

Dell Aims New Affordable Windows 8 Tablet at Schools, Hospitals, and Small Businesses.  Not sure I find $499 that affordable, but it is better by far than the prices for other Windows tablets.

OLPC Vows to Bring New Education Tablet to Retail Stores Later This Year. OLPC stands for One Laptop Per Child.

Surface Pro: Even Microsoft’s Own Tablet Can’t Solve Windows 8 Intrinsic Flaws. Detailed review of the Pro tablet, and a reasonably objective one. Another noteworthy review is from David Pogue in the New York Times.

40 Best Windows Phone Apps of 2012. Straight list, 1-40, not categorized, sadly.

Firefox 19 Betas: Built-in PDF viewing, Broader Android Reach. Article mentions Safari and Chrome already have built-in PDF viewers, so all three browsers can bypass the Adobe Reader.

Asus Looks to Tap Emerging Markets with $149 Jelly Bean Tablet. Jelly Bean is the latest version of the Android operating system. This looks like it will be another competitor in the education market.

5 Tactics for Managing the Overwhelm. Useful, though not particularly new ideas, and won’t work for all jobs. The author does mention a couple of useful sources, including the book The Power of Habit, and the blog by the gentleman who runs the Persuasive Technology lab at Stanford.

Free Version of Foxit Mobile PDF Reader Now Available for Android. Brief review that does a good job of covering the features offered. The reader is also available for iOS, and for both platforms a free version and a paid version are available. Other sources agree this is one of the best PDF readers.

Apple Could Be Working on 128G iPad for Government and Education Uses. Will be expensive, of course, but could be a good option for students and faculty.

Here’s the beginnings of a great idea – a group has formed called AQuA, the App Quality Alliance. They have begun a Quality App Directory, described as “a directory of mobile apps that have met a certain quality level: a quality level specified by the AQuA members: AT&T, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Oracle, Orange, Samsung and Sony Mobile.” You can search by app title, suitable device, or developer. Would like to see them devise categories for apps, but I guess that’s the librarian in me.

EndNote now has an iPad app.

We here at PKM are big fans of the Gradhacker and Profhacker blogs. We submit for your consideration this post, Turn Your Phone into a Scanner.

Quality ranking of apps seems to be the new buzzword, and about time. See New Analytics Service Applause Ranks App Quality. Talks about the Applause service and the criteria it uses for judging app quality.

Thomson Reuters has introduced a mobile app for Web of Science, so far iPhone only.

Year for Productivity Session 3: Email: To Zero or not to zero… that is one of the questions..


When discussions commence about the topic of productivity, inevitably the topic of email overload is soon a focus of discussion. We have hundreds (or thousands for some people) of emails in various work and personal accounts cluttering up our mailboxes and our minds every day. We have devices that allow us to stay in contact with email wherever we go and it is almost impossible to avoid the sight of individuals tapping and scrolling through their mobile devices, either trying to keep up with the pace of the information or compulsively checking to be sure they find and read critical messages as soon as they appear.

There are several prominent techniques to address the issue of email overload:

That First Hour of the Day:

Popular productivity theory urges individuals to carve away a significant block of time at the start of the day to work on projects, deferring the lure of signing into email until a later time.   There are a number of benefits by cultivating this habit.  First, in most offices, the first hour of the day is often a quiet time with few meetings: a time tailor-made to focus on achieving top tasks from your to-do list.  Second, email is a place where other people are requesting your attention and time on items from THEIR to-do lists, not yours, and you find yourself becoming a person who is focused on reacting to others instead of proactively furthering your goals.  Tim Ferriss calls it “being a slave to your inbox” in his popular book, “The Four Hour Work Week.”   Finally, have you ever looked up from your email to realize that hours have passed and your goals for the day are yet to be started?  Email can be quicksand to your time management goals.

Inbox Zero:

The Inbox Zero phenomenon is most often credited to Merlin Mann, who in 2007 authored a series of posts on the 43 Folders website.  The series, entitled Inbox Zero, described in great detail Mann’s theory of improving productivity by handling email once, sorting, storing, deleting and taking action as needed based on the email content.   His daily goal was maintaining a totally empty inbox.  His methodology is based on the concepts put forth in David Allen’s book, “Getting Things Done”, which focused more on productivity using a paper/pencil organization system.  Mann’s 43 Folders website transferred those concepts to the work world online.

I highly recommend Merlin Mann’s Google Tech Talk in our Selected Readings section.  He does an excellent job of making the Inbox Zero method sensible and doable. One question asked of Mann is a common concern:  Everyone expects me to see communications immediately… I can’t only look a few times a day!  Mann  suggests, as do I, to initiate a conversation with your work team and your manager.  Agree on what reasonable expectations are and then work from that point.

But I have HUNDREDS of emails in my inbox!  How could I ever find time to even ATTEMPT a Zero inbox?  Let me share one technique that I have used to “start over” with a zero box.  The first time I attempted zero inbox I first sorted my inbox by date.  I created a folder called “inbox prior to xxxx” (ie, prior to this year). I then moved all emails fitting that criterion into that folder.  I then ignored that folder going forward.  If there were emails there that I truly still needed, they would turn up in a search at some point.  Then I could move that email to a proper folder for filing, or deal with it and delete.  Now my inbox has only the current year emails.  If this is still a massive number, you could repeat the process, creating quarterly folders and then only working thru one quarter at a time, starting with the most recent.  Schedule yourself a half hour several afternoons a week to sort out those more recent emails and clear them out so that you are left with the one prior years folder.  This chunking method can allow you to make a “fresh start” on the Zero Inbox.

Automatic Sorting of Emails:

Another technique that offers a valuable alternative to the overflowing inbox is using folders, tags, rules and filters to organize emails.  People who have been working with the Inbox Zero method have already begun making a few folders.  Now your own personal preference comes into play.  How do you think? I find it very productive to have a larger number of folders that are nested and arranged by topic.  This gives me a bird’s eye view of my information and I can locate information quickly.  Other people become bogged down with trying to develop a folder scheme and then debating over where each email should go.  Use trial and error and some self-understanding of how you work most comfortably to choose the method that works best for you.  Regardless of your choices, understanding the technical capabilities of your email system and how foldering/tagging and filters work is important.   If you haven’t used filters yet, you are missing out on a powerful way to jump-start your daily email sorting.

You already have one major filter that came with your email system, even though you might not think of it as such.  Email systems have become much more sophisticated in recognizing spam and automatically rout spam emails to a SPAM folder.  You never have to see or sort these emails because the email system has already done it for you.  Filters that you create can be equally powerful allies in presorting certain emails.  Perhaps you’d like a “Reading Bin” filter that sent a predefined group of email addresses to a folder for reading later.  This might be useful for listserv emails, university newsletters, etc.  Once you then schedule a time once or twice a week to scan through this folder, you have successfully removed a large block of “noise” and time-diverting temptation from your daily schedule.  In our Selected Readings section, I have identified links to tutorials on how to create filters for several of the most popular email systems.

In addition to creating your own filters, there are also several applications available on the web that will create categories of filters and prefilter your email for you.  ActiveInbox is specifically designed to work with Gmail, and comes with both a free, and a paid version that has additional features.  OtherInbox offers an organizer that works on Gmail, Yahoo mail, Hotmail and AOL platforms.  I have been experimenting with this latter service and it has some positives and some negatives.  I plan to publish a Tuesday Tool Tip next week describing my experiences with this tool in depth.

As with all of the tools and techniques that we will discuss in this series, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  Our goal is to provide some alternatives and to encourage people to think about their situations and needs.  What might be a perfectly good answer for private email accounts might not be appropriate for work accounts or vise versa.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

  1. The author of the Getting Things Done: My Experiences using GTD” blog has a post entitled “Evolution of my email setup”  Read this article and write a short accounting of how you would describe your email evolution. Are you a slave to your inbox?
  2. Investigate the tutorials / help sections for your particular email system.  I’ve provided links to several systems in the Selected Reading section below.  Spend a little time and experiment with creating a filter for a category of emails that you want to read but don’t want to interrupt you every day when they arrive. Add an appointment to your calendar to remind you to review that filtered folder at another specified time.
  3. Explore the Inbox Zero resources.  Is Merlin Mann’s technique something you would like to try? Think about ways to chunk the initial setup process to make it more doable for you and your email.
  4. Share!  What helpful hints, techniques, or articles/blog posts would you like to share with the rest of us?

Selected Readings:

General articles on email overload:

Camargo, M.R. (2008). “A grounded theory study of the relationship between e-mail and burnout ” Information Research13(4) paper 383. [Available at]

Whittaker S. & Sidner C. (1996). E-mail overload: exploring personal information management of e-mail. In S. Kiesler, (Ed.) Culture of the Internet. (pp. 276-295). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Ducheneaut, N.B. & Bellotti, V. (2001). E-mail as habitat. An exploration of embedded personal information managementACM Interactions8(3), 30-38. Retrieved July 20, 2004, from

Inbox Zero:

The Inbox Zero Portal:  This portal contains links to the video of Merlin Mann’s original Google Tech Talk from July 23, 2007 on Inbox Zero and also links to his Inbox Zero blog post series:

If you have a Gmail account, you can experiment with the Inbox Zero method by playing Baydin’s Email Game program. : 7 blog posts discussing one person’s process of converting to the  inbox zero method:  Days 5 &6 in particular discuss GMAIL filters in detail.

 Filters, Folders, Tags, Rules, etc Tutorials and Guides:


 Google: (Filters, labels)

Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail:



Making Sense of email overload: conversations & activity streams- Zimbra 8:

Organizing Emails: Folders, Filters and Tags in Zimbra:

Zimbra Video Tutorials:


Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/


Tuesday Tool Tip: Cmap

monkey computer toolsCmap: Free and easy tool for concept mapping

I was wrong; it happens sometimes.  I have avoided trying out Cmap for years because I assumed that something developed at an Institute for Human and Machine Cognition would be arcane, hard to use, and meant only for those who could spend days setting it up, had administrative access to servers, or would be willing to live on discussion lists with hard-core techies until they could figure it out.

I couldn’t have been more mistaken.  IHMC is affiliated with the Florida University system, and they have developed a free tool you can figure out, by yourself, in a couple hours.  Right now, Cmap seems to be the concept mapping tool I have been seeking for a long time, something I can heartily recommend to students and faculty.

It’s free for everyone (I know, I said that already, but I want to repeat it).
It’s simple but flexible.
You can attach files of different types (pdfs, images, spreadsheets) as well as embed urls.
You can easily share your work with other people.
Supports reciprocal relationships and non-hierarchical relationships, so can be used to model reasonably complex systems; you can also hide nodes and link nodes between maps to deal with increasing complexity.
There’s good documentation.


So here’s what I did this afternoon, in about 2 hours, removing time spent on lunch and meetings:Concept map made using Cmap

This is just a very simple example to show some of its features.

Concept maps are important, both in education and in personal knowledge management, because they help us make order out of our information; they are a step in the direction of making sense of all the material that we are trying to relate.  They force us to surface our assumptions, clarify relationships, and help us place new material in the context of what we already know.David Hyerle calls them tools for “thinking about the box” (Visual Tools for Transforming Information into Knowledge, 91).

Further reading:

Novak, Joseph D. Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations.  Second edition. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Novak, Joseph D. and Cañas, Alberto J. “The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them.” Technical Report IHMC Cmap Tools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008.

Teaching and Learning with Concept Maps at Inspiration Software, a big player in the K-12 mind mapping and concept mapping market.  They have a product meant for higher education, called Inspiration Pro, available by subscription.  You can save your maps only online, and once you give up your subscription you lose access to your maps.  Additionally, you cannot attach documents to your maps (except other Inspiration maps and weblinks) – no pdfs, word processing or spreadsheet files, which seriously limits their usefulness.





Year for Productivity: Session 2: May I Have Your Attention?

Year for Productivity Session 2

Remember the old joke “SEX!  Now that I’ve got your attention…”?  It turns out that this is a humorous but accurate description of how the brain works.  When human brains evolved, they did so where needs were basic.  When we consider the environment in which ancient man lived, this meant needing to focus on first identifying danger, then food, and so on.  Paying attention to every blade of grass, every tree, every cloud in the sky would have meant not noticing the saber-toothed tiger stalking you.  There are several key aspects of “attention”. First is the fact that it functions to filter out information, not let it in  (Davenport, p. 58).

Another article discusses the neuroscience of attention:

Getting Past the  First Roadblock – Reticular Activating System (RAS) According to Willis, at any given moment only about 2,000 bits out of the  millions of discrete pieces of information that our senses  are constantly bombarded with can reach our  conscious attention. The gatekeeper that decides what gets through is the RAS,  located in the brain stem. This primitive part of the brain works in much the  same way that it has since our human ancestors were hiding in caves and running  for their lives from better-equipped predators.  This part of the brain is regulated by our  basic survival instincts to notice what has changed or is different in our  environment. When something new is present it is given the highest priority for  our perception, particularly if it is perceived as a possible threat.

This leads to the second most important fact: attention, like time, is finite, and there is no magic solution that will give more of it.  The concept of attention management grew out of this hard fact.   Management consultants and researchers Thomas Davenport and John Beck first popularized the term. They studied it from the perspective of how organizations become more successful as they become more proficient in focusing the attention of the group and the individuals who are part of it.

Davenport and Beck (p. 20) define attention:

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.

Attention is thus tied to information.  Consider the implications of the following: “The Sunday New York Times contains more factual information in one edition than in all the written work available to a reader in the fifteenth century” (Davenport, p. 4).  We’ve all been discussing information overload for years, but the concept of attention management is essential to understanding that our personal productivity is a matter of what we choose to give our attention to, and whether the most important priorities receive the most attention.

Information overload is certainly part of the equation.  We’ve all seen masses of infographics about the rate that knowledge is increasing, and with the advent of the web it is coming at us from so many more directions.  What is important here is the psychological effect of so much information, which for most people results in the feeling of being overwhelmed.

In the excellent book Personal Productivity Secrets, Maura Thomas talks about the Lion Syndrome.  Lion tamers use a chair or stool and point the legs at the lion, who sees four separate and equal threats and backs away in confusion, unable to decide which to attack (p. 42).  So when faced with overwhelming information, we often turn our attention not to our highest priorities, but to the easiest thing to deal with, usually email.

The book asks a number of questions to determine if you have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  I was appalled to find myself answering every question yes, but the author goes on to the conclusion that many of  us have a culturally-induced version of ADD brought on by our hyper-connected world.  A result is that most of us start the morning with email or other forms of communication and wind up reacting to the needs of others and at the end of the day can’t recall or articulate what we actually accomplished (Thomas, p. 19)

One response to this infinity of things needing our attention is that the concept of multitasking has become the battle cry.  There’s so much to be done, and I can do more than one thing at a time!  Sadly, the brain doesn’t work that way.  Dave Crenshaw in The Myth of Multitasking explains it in terms of switching costs.  The brain can’t focus on more than one thing at a time unless the second thing requires little conscious thought.  Moreover, as the brain switches from one task to another, it takes a while to find its place.  The more switches, the more time spent reorienting to the next task, therefore multitasking takes more time than focusing on one thing through completion and then moving to the next.

A number of books have been published lamenting that being always connected leaves one without time for reflection, the deep thinking from which creativity and inspiration spring.  It is why many of us these days find our most useful ideas occur to us in the shower where there are no distractions (though sadly no easy, or dry, way to capture those moments of inspiration).

William Powers, author of  Hamlet’s Blackberry, is not alone in advocating that we schedule into our lives some unconnected time, in order to have those moments of reflection and creativity – or to have more “face time” with the people we are closest to.  Doing so is challenging because, as neuroscientists are finding, our brains get addicted to many kinds of stimuli, anything from narcotics to gambling to chocolate to constantly checking if we have new email, or new Facebook updates.  So it may take effort to adjust to unconnected time.

A good plan to start with is to create to-do lists.  One of our upcoming lessons is on that topic, so more details then.  One of our suggested readings this lesson is Personal Productivity Secrets.  In it Thomas sets out the challenges covered briefly here and has a detailed plan for redesigning one’s work life to be most efficient AND (cue fireworks) actually achieve one’s highest priorities.

Paying attention in a hyper-connected world is like herding cats…if the cats are on a stampede through your brain.  Throughout this course we will focus on tools and concepts for improving productivity, and an essential prerequisite is knowing that what you choose to pay attention to determines your productiveness.

Selected Readings:

Attention Management Blog ( Aggregates and edits posts from other sources on attention management.

Crenshaw, D. (2008). The myth of multitasking: How doing it all gets nothing done. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (Only 68 pages, worth reading in its entirety). He has a good 20 minute video on YouTube on the same topic:
Davenport, T. H., & Beck, J. C. (2001). The attention economy: Understanding the new currency of business. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, ch. 1-5.

Goodman, N. “How to Train Your Brain to Stay Focused“. Brief post with some excellent ideas.

Hatmaker, T. How Mind-Controlled Games Work – and Why It Is Way Bigger than That. The most interesting part is near the end, starting with the Future of the Future section, in a discussion about being able to retrain how the brain pays attention.

Renfro, C. Time Management or Focus Management?

Thomas, M. (2012). Personal productivity secrets: Do what you never thought possible with your time and attention … and regain control of your life. Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley. Her blog has several additional timely articles on attention management.

For Fun:

Pickpockets, Attention, and Neuroscience: A Demonstration –  Fascinating fun piece about Apollo Robbins.  The video is a wild demonstration of the art of distracting attention.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

(1)  For two days, keep a log of your activities at work.  Write down everything. Also, for this step and for step 2, notice when your energy peaks and when it is at its lowest point.
(2)  The next two work days, start the day by writing a list of things you need to accomplish, and mark them off as you do them.
(3)  Compare the four days.  Did you accomplish more when writing a list of goals to be accomplished?  Did it help you clarify in your mind what needed to be done?  Did you act more and react less? Is your energy best in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Can you schedule your creative time when your energy peaks?


Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/