A quick Amazon book search yields over 60,000 results for “time management”.
There’s been an annoying trend in personal development books for quite some time now: Well known CEOs of huge corporations writing about success principles. I’m annoyed by it because many of them speak in nebulous terms in order to sound intelligent and important but have little utility for the reader. Things like, “We focus on fostering an intuitive culture of discovery in order to service our customers with innovative solutions.”
That’s some bullshit.
It makes me wonder what some of these wealthy “business leaders” actually do in their day-to-day jobs. Apparently, they make up impressive-sounding sentences in order to inspire their shareholders (who might never question these types of phrases for fear of looking like they don’t get it) and pretend that they’re motivating their employees. But what use is it to the average reader of one of their $30 books?
Out of this corporate leadership fad, we’ve been beaten upside the head with how we could also be successful, if only we were better at time management. I know I’ve wasted too much time (ironically) on beating myself up for lack of results, lack of discipline, and specifically my lack of good time management.
When I was a kid, I used to draw grids on paper (pre-internet age) and experimented with scheduling my days right down to 15-minute increments. If only I could stick to that schedule, I’d be wildly successful! Of course, as adults, it’s easy to laugh at the naivety of such an approach. It doesn’t take long to figure out that A) unexpected externalities will come at you to derail your plans, and B) you can never anticipate everything in such a way so as to allocate the correct time needed for each item in advance.
So we’re given lots of advice on time management (over 60,000 books’ worth); chunking, prioritizing, allocating, and clearing your schedule. Plan for distractions. Plan for downtime. Plan for…everything.
For the past few years, I’ve been aware of the need for Energy Management instead.
It’s easy, when you’re motivated, to sit down and plan your ultimately productive day, or week, or longer. what happens when you’re not so energized? What does your schedule do for your energy? Have you balanced your day to provide you with energy-inducing activities in relation to the energy-sucking activities? How much energy do you actually, realistically have to devote to any one task?
A quick internet search brings up a study that suggests that the average 40-hour per week worker is only productive for 12.5 hours out of the 40. I know people who are far more productive than that, so if that average holds true, there must be a lot of people out there doing nothing!
I don’t buy into any “study” at first glance, so don’t get caught up in those numbers. But, it’s obvious that we are not machines, and we’d do well to manage an even more precious resource than our time; our energy. And yet, what does an Amazon book search yield for “energy management”? Over 20,000 results, one-third that of “time Management”.
But there’s another precious resource. One that’s even more valuable than our time and energy.
It’s one that you’re giving to me right now, and I thank you for it. It’s been more sought after than gold by all of the great philosophers and Eastern practices. It’s made Zuckerberg a billionaire. It’s what we desire from others, what our loved ones want from us, and what brings us to the present moment.
Attention, though finite in its availability, can be increased and improved upon to a certain extent. Attention, like running or jumping, is an innate quality, but one that can be improved upon with practice. If we were to treat our attention as valuable as we treat our money, we might finally learn to budget well.
There are two ways to increase your wealth in money. Only two: Make more, spend less. Oh sure, there are lots of nuances to this, but every nuance falls directly in one of those two categories (if we consider a penny saved, is a penny earned – saving for investment is an attempt to earn more and spend less). You can only spend less to diminishing ends. You can’t spend less than zero, and most of us can’t get anywhere close to living without spending at all. So we often focus on increasing wealth by doing some of both; practice frugality, but mostly try to increase our income.
And so it is with our attention. We can spend less, and we can invest in making more.
This, like any budget, may appear to take sacrifice and discipline. I don’t look at it as a sacrifice, I look at it as a preference. When Tali and I made the decision to combine our finances and get out of debt together (before we even talked of marriage), we made decisions to make more food at home, to cancel unneeded services, and to funnel as much of our income into paying off debt as we could. We still went on dates, but we might share a single beer between us. We didn’t feel that we were sacrificing, we felt like we were progressing toward our vision of living debt-free.
So what does spending less attention look like? Just like our journey to debt-freedom, it means deciding on what’s really important to you and what you really want from your attention. You have to take seriously the notion that you only have so much to give. If you can’t pay attention to your kids because you’re “fried”, then you have to ask; is Facebook is more important?
Ouch. That was kina brutal. But I hope it drives home my point.
Tali and I have made the conscious decision to not watch TV every evening. We try to keep a tapestry hanging over the TV and schedule movies or TV “dates”. As a result, we’ve spent more quality time together, reading, listening to an audiobook together, talking while looking in each other’s eyes, making love, practicing cello, writing. We stopped spending so much of our attention and suddenly we found ourselves with more to give.
Please note, this is not a time management issue. We could have still done all of those things and kept our evening TV habit. We have the time. But our attention was being scattered and exhausted.
I’ve deleted Facebook and Instagram from my phone. And soon (after I get a few specific articles out) I will be closing my social media accounts forever. The less attention I give to them, the better I feel (and the more I write, exercise, have meaningful conversations, read, etc…).
I value my attention enough to no longer give it to billionaires for free.
But how do you cultivate more?
Like any other skill: practice.
Facebook and television shows are specifically designed to keep your attention with as little effort as possible. Have you noticed the proliferation of serial shows- ones that do not have stand-alone episodes, but rather a never-ending continuation of storylines? This used to be rare, but the creators figured out that they can keep you on the hook if you don’t get completely satisfied in each episode.
These activities are spending your attention without giving much in return.
To strengthen a muscle, you don’t do activities that are easy for the muscle. You test its strength in order to get stronger. Same with your attention.
To cultivate the skill of your attention, test it.
Here are a few of my practices that I’ve found tremendously useful in developing my quality and stamina of attention:
I highly recommend the Headspace and Waking-up apps. Meditation need not be approached with a woo-woo magical view. I look at meditation, quite literally, as brain training. I’m simply practicing being aware. I’m actually practicing the skill of attention. Having one of the aforementioned apps guide you through the process is incredibly valuable and makes the whole idea of meditation much more approachable.
Headspace is a bit more “lead you by the hand”. I think it’s great for beginners and easy to return to if you fall off your practice. Waking-up is by Sam Harris. It has the benefit of combining the guided meditations with “lessons” made up of short talks, interviews, and lectures to get at some of the deeper concepts of meditation. I geek out on that kind of stuff so I’m really enjoying his app. He also has a 1-month free trial at the moment, and if you can’t afford to keep it up, you can shoot them an email and they’ll issue you a free membership. Pretty incredible!
Remember books? I sort of assume that because I’m a reader (and this article is going on 1500 words at this point) that most of my readers are likely in to books as well. So I’m probably preaching to the choir here.
There are cliches about how people never read books after college. The reality is that books are still quite popular and the mean average of Americans is about 12 books read per year. Not bad. But then, these studies don’t tell us anything about the quality of these books.
I look at long-form attention skills like a set of classic scales. If you put in a bunch of memes, tweets, comics, and TV on one side, you can outweigh the 15 minutes of long-form practice you’re putting in before bed. So be careful about the ratio of junk-food to workouts you’re doing! (It’s my blog, I’ll mix metaphors if I want to.)
There is some actual biology at play in the scale analogy that is beyond the scope of this article. But you can easily look at the chemical reactions just like getting high. On the left, there are quick-fix drugs, on the right is a “runners high”. The quick fix dopamine hits of social media prompt an adaptation for short-duration focus; your brain wants the next hit as fast as possible. Reading long-form materials (especially ones that challenge you a little), like running, takes a bit of work and practice, but the “high” you get from it helps you to adapt to longer-duration focus. Attention stamina, if you will.
Meaningful conversation (the more vulnerable the closer attention).
It’s sometimes easy to forget the days before we all had electronics in front of our faces. But even before smart-phones and dumb memes, distraction is an easy default. My three children are all adults now. If I could go back and do one thing differently as a young father, it would have been to prioritize more eye-contact conversations. The type of talks where all you’re doing is talking and listening to each other.
Go on dates with your spouse that allow for distraction-free conversation. Take your kids, one at a time on dates too. Distraction-free dinner table meals, electronic-free evenings, and reading aloud to each other are all rewarding ways to prompt more real attention and presence. If you don’t have a family, know that this applies to all loving or what I call “inner-circle” relationships.
In The Lyceum Method, I begin with a specific yet flexible journaling process. Each morning I begin writing about Gratitude, My life’s’ Vision, Affirmations of who I want to be in order to live that Vision, and a single Action step to bring me closer to the Vision. I’ll sometimes journal about my daily practices as well as my day-to-day thoughts or diary.
It’s a little concerning to me that some schools are abandoning cursive handwriting. I understand that technology will allow us all to abandon the necessity of handwriting, but it will be a great loss. The type of focus it takes to write long-form is much different than typing or dictating. I try to implement calligraphy or quality cursive into my journal practice. This slows me down even more and has tremendous carry-over into other skills, not the least of which is my sense of presence and attention.
Learn another skill
When we challenge ourselves to learn a new skill, we get a two-for-one bonus. We are practicing focus on the new skill, and we get the new skill itself. I think most of us probably have interests that we’ve put aside because we don’t have the time or energy for them. But if you set the bar very low and commit to just a few minutes per day, you’d be amazed at the progress that can be made. 5-minutes of guitar playing. 10 minutes of online dance instruction. A single-credit college course. Anything that captures your attention, puts you in the beginners’ mind, and rewards you for practicing your attention skills will have a carryover effect.
You can train your memory just like you can train your muscles. Mnemonics are a set of tools that you can learn to use to improve your short-term and long-term memory. They’re fun to use, have obvious benefits, and sharpen your focus. I learned the system of Memory Power from the great magician, Harry Lorayne. There are many others, but I still think his is the best.
This one is not a stand-alone practice, unlike the examples listed so far. Entering into a flow state requires you to focus in a way that challenges you but does not discourage you. Flow is found on the razor-thin line between conscious presence and subconscious reverie. It’s a big topic that I encourage you to get familiar with, and more importantly, seek out opportunities for being in flow. Read more about it from the psychologist who’s most credited with refining this term, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (pronounced like Me-high Chick-sent-me-high) in his pivotal book: Flow.
And of course, sleep, nutrition, and exercise all play a role in your retention of attention.
What’s your attention worth?
I know from experience that when loved-ones ask to spend more time together, what they really want is my attention.
When I’m learning something, I know that the time I spend practicing is of secondary importance compared to my ability to pay attention.
I’ve learned that the most fulfilling experiences of life are those times in which I’m fully present. And to live now means to pay attention.
There are only over 6,000 results for “attention management” on Amazon. I realize that the terminology is not common compared to “time management” but this is exactly my point. If we’re looking for fulfillment, connection, and growth, I think we can do better than the cold, mechanical view of time management.
We can, instead, begin to budget our energy and cultivate the skill of attention.