The problem is that while information has no limits, human attention does. Our brains are designed to filter out most stimuli, focusing on just a few things at once. If we try to multi-task in too many directions, our brains begin to act exactly like what they are: overloaded electrical circuits. In extreme situations we may "blank out," literally becoming unable to perceive whatever is yammering for our attention.
Attention Management 101
As noted in The Attention Economy, (Harvard Business School Press) analysts at a major business research institute recently conducted an in-depth study of attention and developed strategies for managing the attention of a corporate staff. The same principles apply to managing your own attention, both at work and at home.
1. Accept that you can't pay attention to everything you "should."
Because the information explosion is so recent, we still have beliefs left over from a time when there was much less competition for our attention. We believe we should be able to stay on top of everything. Your first step in effective attention management is to jettison this exaggerated sense of what you should be able to process. Get it through your head: There is too much information for you to handle! Good. Now that we've cleared that up, you can relax and deal with the reality of living in a world packed with attention demands.
2. Make prioritizing a priority.
If you start a day without a clear plan about how you're going to spend your attention, you'll end up wasting most of it. Your first priority should be to take a little undisturbed time each day to evaluate the various demands on your attention before they show up. Do your prioritizing whenever you typically think most clearly (most people do best in the morning, but I like to take five minutes before I go to bed to preview the upcoming day). Rank tasks in order of importance and write them down. That way, when you're being hounded for attention you'll have a visual cue to help you focus on the most significant task first, leaving less necessary items for later—or for never.
3. Plan with eagle vision.
In some American Indian cultures, the eagle symbolizes a way of seeing that stays above ordinary life, considering everything in terms of the big picture. This is the way you should think during your daily attention-management planning sessions. It helps to begin a session by asking yourself these two questions: (1) What experiences do I want to have during my time on this Earth? and (2) How do I want the world to be different (because in large ways or small, it will be different) because I have lived?
Consider each task on your to-do list in light of these two questions. If a to-do item doesn't serve either purpose, it's got to go.
4. Work with mouse vision.
Once your eagle-vision plan is in place, it's time to play mouse. Mouse vision is an American Indian metaphor for adopting a mind-set focused directly and completely on whatever is in front of you. Choose what is most important, shut out distractions, and give all your attention to the activity at hand.
To get into a mousy frame of mind, designate a period of time during which you will focus entirely on a given activity. The session shouldn't be long—half an hour is a good start. Now, set a timer to go off when your work session is finished. Put the clock where you can't see it, and then devote all your attention to the task at hand. You'll immediately notice a jump in productivity.
12 questions to ask if you're feeling overwhelmed
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From the April 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.