Time management is dead. Long live attention design! I like this idea.
Time management is dead. Long live attention design! I like this idea.
Time cannot be managed. It’s flowing utterly independent of whatever you do. If the flow of time seems to change, sometimes being slower, sometimes faster, then that’s purely subjective. The clock is ticking no matter what.
A more useful view is to assume yourself being carried downstream (towards your ultimate demise) by the ever unchanging flow of time.
You’re like a captain on a boat on a large stream. You do not control the stream, but you can control your ship. You set the course, i.e., you take bearings and steer the boat towards destinations on the stream or along the shore.
If in this analogy time is the stream, what’s the ship? Your attention. That’s what you can control, direct, steer. You are the captain of your attention ship.
While you cannot manage gravity, you can still fly. While you cannot manage wind, you can cross an ocean. And while you cannot control time, you can still accomplish tasks. You do that by designing your attention.
With well-shaped attention, you’re most productive towards whatever goals you set for yourself.
The other day I read an article (in German) by Andrea Kaden from zeitgewinn hamburg. She explained attention design with some quite nice images.
For her attention has a 3-dimensional shape:
attention has a direction
attention has an extension (in time)
attention has an intensity
As you can see in the above image, the flow of attention often changes directions, is of different length (extension) in those directions, and is of varying intensity throughout this extension.
That’s an excellent visualization. I like it. However, I find it difficult to use it as a planning tool. A meandering line like that might help analyze what happened during a day. But it’s cumbersome to use for attention design.
Andrea is explaining a multi-step process for how to give your attention a shape based on a to-do list. That’s simple enough. But still, something’s lacking, I think.
I tried to follow her steps but was unsure which directions to assign the tasks requiring my attention. Also, I did not know where to begin the drawing of the flowing attention line.
But, as I said, I like the idea of attention design very much. So I doodled around a bit — and finally came up with a more systematic way of drawing an “attention shape blueprint” for a day.
The Attention Spiral
What is a good attention design? How do you judge an actual flow of attention against an attention design?
With just a meandering line that’s hard, I think. But what if the flow of attention had an ideal shape?
After some doodling, I’ve found a spiral to be just right for that. It’s a simple, easy to draw and recognize shape.
Spirals come in many variations, but you can easily distinguish a spiral from a circle or a square. And you can easily spot deviations if you’re trying to trace the line of a spiral.
And here’s how you can design your attention spiral. It’s very straightforward:
#1 Arrange Your Tasks
Draw a rough square and place around it up to 8 tasks you want to direct your attention to. (I don’t say “accomplish” or “finish” because attention design is less about reaching a goal, but making progress. It’s less about the destination, but more about the path.)
Putting 8 tasks on your list for a day is quite a lot. It probably means each task will get less than an hour of your attention. But, well, in the end, it depends on your job, I guess, how much you can and should put on your plate. I, personally, prefer 3 to 4 tasks at most — plus maybe a flurry of tiny things to do, but which don’t warrant explicit attention design. See the “social media/email” task in the image above. It’s supposed to be a “bucket” for many small tasks, even ones you don’t know about during attention design.
Where the tasks are placed around the square might look strange to you, but it’s not arbitrary: each of the 8 tasks is either placed at the beginning of an edge or in its middle. This placement makes it simple to design your attention’s shape like a spiral.
#2 Direct and Extend Your Attention
Now start somewhere on the horizontal line and draw an arrow towards your first task.
By this, you define where you want to direct your attention at, and what extension your attention should have.
The object of attention is the task “Review design,” the extension is about 2 hours.
Why 2 hours? Because the length of the box edges is supposed to represent 4 hours. Why’s that? Because more than 4 hours in a row, you probably cannot pay full attention to a task. There’s no need to draw longer attention arrows. And I’d even say, usually you’ll have already a hard time to focus for 2 hours at a time.
So if you start to draw an attention arrow around the middle of the box and extend it to an edge, you get a 2-hour attention span.
Now, let’s continue with the remaining tasks:
Tadah! The attention spiral.
It’s primitive, it’s crude, but you can recognize it, can’t you?
Now check the extension of the attention arrows. The total length of them is around 8 hours, I’d say. No task is planned to require more than 2 hours of attention, most get less.
In which order you place your tasks around the square is up to you. How long you extend your attention towards a given task, is up to you. Just put arrows in a clockwise manner into the box starting with the one pointing towards the “9 o’clock task”.
#3 Assign Intensity
In her article Andrea also lists three “laws of form” for attention:
The intensity of attention is inversely proportional to its extension.
Changing the direction of your attention leads to a bump in intensity.
The longer the extension of your attention, the more easily you can get distracted.
I find these “laws” pretty reasonable. They correlate with my experience. Recommendations have been developed, how to deal with them: The Pomodoro Technique addresses laws no. 1 and no. 3 pretty neatly. The ubiquitous admonition to avoid multi-tasking addresses law no. 2. And now with the bounded box for attention spiral design, I’d like to also address laws no. 1 and 2.
But you can go even further. You can give each attention arrow a shape.
Solid, dashed, dotted arrows denote different levels of intensity:
A solid arrow means “full attention needed the whole time.”
A dotted arrow means “only shallow attention needed; short distractions are ok.”
A dashed arrow means “attention paced using Pomodoro Technique,” i.e., you want to take short breaks every 25 minutes to keep your attention hight.
Or use other aspects of the arrow to plan intensity like thickness or color.
Or use several modalities:
In this example, the color red stands for attention that must be paid during that day, no way around it. The tasks need to be addressed. Examples: the design review, and the bug fixing really have to be done.
And the thickness stands for how fixed to its position an arrow is. A thin arrow task could be focused on earlier or later. But the thicker the arrow, the more critical it is that the task is done where in the design it’s been placed, i.e., during a specified period of the day. Example: the design review really needs to be done first thing in the morning, and bookkeeping should be finished before noon/during the first half of the day.
A Day Spiralling out of Design
So much for planning the shape of your day’s attention. Use the attention spiral to think about what to do, how to do it. That’s before you actually do it.
There is no merit in and of itself in such a design, of course. It’s just my suggestion for situations where you find it hard to focus, feel overwhelmed, don’t know at the end of the day what you’ve accomplished. I’m thinking of it as a “to-do list on steroids.” You’re adding dimensions to planning beyond selection and order. It’s a higher fidelity planning tool to make you go slower.
Yes, I want you to go slower. Or better: to become more conscious, more aware of what’s going on. By adding dimensions (and not to forget the “laws of form”), your sensitivity is supposed to increase. You start to look more closely how your attention flows, whether it flows in a productive or unproductive manner. (You might want to read “The Inner Game of Work” to learn more about why heightened awareness (or mindfulness) at the workplace is a good thing.)
To come full circle, however, design and implementation (executing the design) are not enough. You also should measure what you actually do. Can you follow your attention design just like that? Does it make it easier for you to thwart off distractions and interruptions? How does your attention flow de facto?
This could be what you come up with during a retrospection at the end of the day. The ideal spiral shape can only roughly be recognized. But it could be worse. You design has kept you on track.
A couple of unexpected tasks have creped up, though. They distracted you from your design. Straight lines became meandering lines. And you were not able to pay attention as intensely as planned.
Try not to scold yourself about all these deviations. Try to take them as information. Ask, why did it happen? Maybe your plan was unrealistic? Maybe your environment was not set up well enough for you to follow your plan?
This kind of contrast is an opportunity for learning. Try to get as much out of it, as you can. And then iterate: do it again tomorrow. Do your attention design, implement it, keep track of how your day actually goes, reflect on the difference between plan and reality.
Attention design using the attention spiral is no magic bullet for you to get your efficiency and effectiveness through the roof. But I view it as a useful tool in your personal productivity tool chest.
Give a list of prioritized tasks you can tangibly design the flow of your attention over a period. It’s a map you draw yourself. You can follow this map — and later compare the course of your day against it to improve how you get things done.