If you’re like most people, you occasionally (often?) wish you had more time. Meanwhile, you’re stuck with the same clock and calendar as everyone else.

Personal productivity is among the most perplexing challenges facing people everywhere.

It needn’t be. In fact, our personal productivity can become one of the most satisfying ingredients of our lives. But to make it so, we must pay better attention to our attention.

No, that’s not a typo. We must pay better attention to our attention. We must be more mindful of managing distractions. We must take charge of the not-so-harmless disorder that can rob us of our energy and focus.

That’s what Maura Thomas will tell you. She’s an award-winning trainer on work-life balance and productivity. She’s also the author of Attention Management, a book that offers practical (and sometimes surprising) tips on how to prevent distractions from derailing your aspirations and intentions.

Maura’s focus is much more than just checking things off a to-do list. It’s primarily about deliberately choosing what you attend to. It’s about controlling your technology, your environment, your behaviors, and your thoughts.

Sound intriguing?

Then eavesdrop on this conversation.

Rodger Dean Duncan: The research you cite shows that distraction is what sucks the energy out of so many people and that the solution is attention management. So why is there still so much (misplaced) emphasis on managing time?

Maura Thomas: I think it’s because when we are young, we don’t have a lot of discretion over our time—our lives are very time-based. Our parents tell us what time to wake up and go to bed, school starts and ends at a certain time, after school activities and work are all time-based. This continues through college and/or first jobs out of school.

Maura Thomas

So time-based management of our lives makes perfect sense. Using a calendar and a clock (the foundation of “time management”) are useful for those things that have a strong relationship to time: things that are happening on a certain day, like an event at school (“Wear Your Pajamas to School Day,”) or on a certain day and at a certain time, like your after-school job from 3 pm to 6 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

We begin to rely on our calendar to tell us what to do and where to be because so much of what happens in our life has a strong relationship to time when we’re young. The problem as we get older is two-fold. First, we have more autonomy—more discretion over when we do things. Also, we have many more responsibilities that have a weak relationship to time, meaning they have no due date, no specific time of day that they need to be done, such as making a dentist appointment or reviewing a contract. Or they do have a due date, but it’s at some point in the future, and anytime before or including that due date is acceptable, such as filing your taxes.

Duncan: And we become calendar junkies.

Thomas: Yes. But because we’ve become dependent on our calendar (managing our time), we start to arbitrarily “make appointments with ourselves” for all of those items that have a weak relationship to time. And this fails us because the first person we will break an appointment with is always ourselves, requiring us to spend time “dragging” tasks from one “appointment” to another as we fail to keep these appointments with ourselves.

A second reason these “time management” practices are failing us now, even more so than in the past, is because we are increasingly bombarded by distractions that derail us from our plans. In fact, distraction—not time—is our biggest problem in the fast-paced, “always-on,” technology-rich world of the 21st century. So if distraction is the problem, “managing time” can’t be the solution. Managing our attention must be the solution.

Duncan: You point out that many of us are stuck in a productivity paradox: we need tools like texting and email to do our jobs, but the job of those tools is to keep us using the tools at the expense of doing our jobs. What’s the key to escaping this cycle?

Thomas: Technology is necessary for all of us, and especially for busy professionals.  However, we are failing to control our technology. Instead, we’re letting it control us.

When your device is always on and you change what you’re doing in response to every incoming notification, you never get the quiet, uninterrupted time you need to get in “flow”—that immersive, highly focused state where you both do your best work, and you feel most satisfied by your work.

Another insidious problem of the constant interruptions from technology is that when our attention is diverted every few minutes, distraction becomes a habit, one that gets reinforced every few minutes. So even when there is no distraction, we are distracted by the expectation of a distraction and even a need for distraction. This chips away at our attention span and our patience. So that not only do we lose the desire to apply ourselves to challenging work for extended periods, we lose the ability. And yet accomplishing that meaningful work is what makes us feel satisfied at the end of the day.

Duncan: What’s the key to overcoming this “productivity paradox” that can grip us so tightly?

Thomas: We must regain control over our attention. We can start this by exerting more control over our technology, such as shutting off notifications, putting our devices in “off,” “do not disturb,” or otherwise silent mode. We can work “offline,” and “single-task” as often as possible. Only when we take control of our technology can we do away with the sabotaging habit of constantly needing a distraction.

This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.

Rodger Dean Duncan
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