Compared to the world we lived in 10 years ago, sources of distraction are playing a much bigger role in our personal and professional lives. Walk into any public place from a grocery store to an airport, and you’ll see people with their heads buried in screens. And the modern workplace has become an interruption factory. As this continues, attention management will be essential to success and survival.
I’ve struggled with attention management for my entire life. And the consequences were detrimental to my life and career. It led to:
- Terrible grades in college
- Getting fired from multiple jobs
- Difficulty in romantic relationships
It was a problem I had to solve to turn my life around. Those who develop this ability will have a significant advantage over those who don’t.
Attention Management: The Currency of Everything that Matters
1. The Currency of Love
When you’re a professional speaker, your family members expect you to write their speeches. For her wedding, my sister gave me the task of ensuring people gave good speeches.
I wanted the speeches to be sincere and genuine. So, I told my dad I wouldn’t write the speech, but I’d give him a framework. I’d ask him questions that would reveal what he needed to say:
- What’s something funny about my sister?
- Why do you think this guy is perfect for her?
- Why do you think they’re perfect for each other?
On their first date, my sister casually mentioned that she played the cello. For their fifth date, my brother-in-law asked her if she wanted to see Yo-Yo Ma at the Hollywood Bowl. My dad said, “He’s perfect for her because he pays attention.”
When we pay attention to another person in this way, it’s the clearest indication of how much we value and care about them. This isn’t just relevant to romantic love.
Kids want their parents to pay attention to the goofy things that they do and the ridiculous pictures that they draw. Given their level of emotional maturity, paying attention to them is the clearest indicator that they matter.
Even as an adult, it drives me crazy when I call my dad and I know he’s looking at something on the phone. I get annoyed and say, “You’re not listening.” Or even throw ridiculous statements out like “I’ve decided to sell cocaine.” Yet so many of us are constantly looking at our phones, ignoring the most important people in our lives.
Whether it’s with your kids, parents, siblings or significant others, attention is the currency of love. Attention management could be the most important aspect of your relationship with people who matter most.
2. The Currency of Connection
One of the most important things I’ve learned from more than 700 interviews is to never have a list of questions. All I know about every interview is how I’m going to start and end. As I said in An Audience of One, listening has been my primary creative activity for the last decade.
This forces me to pay attention to every word someone says. I base every single question I ask on the answer they’ve given me to their previous question. The result is a more meaningful conversation and a deeper connection.
There’s a difference between hearing someone and listening to them. Hearing makes a conversation a transaction. Listening transforms it into a connection. Deep listening is the essential ingredient for filling a podcast with what NPR calls “driveway moments.”
3. The Currency of Achievement
Whether you want to write a book, build a company or progress in your career, you have to be able to manage your attention. It’s the essential skill and currency of achievement that will determine your ability to succeed professionally in the next decade.
Everything I’ve achieved over the last decade has taken focus and depth. In a state of depth, we create great art, build billion-dollar empires and make our dent in the universe. In a state of shallowness, we spectate instead of creating. We’re on the sidelines instead of in the game.
Part 2: The State of Your Attention Determines the State of Your Life
Everything in life has an opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of distraction is time, energy, and effort on other activities that have the potential to change your life for the better. Poor attention management decreases the quality of almost every area of your life. It contributes to anxiety and depression, decreases your productivity, and makes your relationships and conversations less meaningful.
I’ve never heard anyone say, “I spent all day checking email and screwing around on Facebook. It was one of the best days of my life.” The state of your attention determines the state of your life. And if your attention is always scattered, the circumstances of your life will reflect that.
Distraction Fuels Depression and Anxiety
Sources of distraction pull us out of the present moment. In the modern world, they shift our attention from the physical world to the virtual world. Whenever we look at a photo on Instagram or read a status update, it’s something that’s already happened. It shifts our attention from the present to the past.
Comparison and Envy
Every source of distraction is filled with an endless parade of accomplishments and accolades. Everybody seems to be doing something far more impressive than you are. This makes comparison inevitable. Fan and follower counts become a measure of self-esteem. Every aspect of your humanity is quantified with vanity metrics, resulting in a false sense of celebrity.
A lack of presence combined with a constant comparison of our insides to other people’s outsides is a perfect cocktail for anxiety and depression. When we post something on social media, notifications, comments, and likes give us a shot of dopamine. Variable rewards keep you coming back for more.
This leads to a sense of fulfillment that doesn’t last, forcing us to post something else in pursuit of more likes, comments, and shares. It’s a vicious cycle of feeding an insatiable beast. Dating apps use the same variable and rewards mechanism, but with a far more seductive promise than likes or comments: the potential for intimacy.
Years ago, in an attempt at a long-distance relationship, I found myself on Facebook messenger for hours on end every day. When the relationship ended, I went into a complete tailspin. But looking at it through the lens of neuroscience, something else became clear. It was like cutting a rat off a Tony Montana-sized mountain of cocaine. I went from a constant surge of dopamine to nothing.
Depression is often the result of trying to change what we can’t and dwelling on the past. Anxiety is the result of trying to control what we can’t and worrying about the future. Sources of distraction contribute to both.
Benefits of Better Attention Management
Distraction makes us miserable. The ability to focus makes us happier, more fulfilled, and more successful. When you raise the quality of your attention, you’ll inevitably raise the quality of your life.
1. You Become Happier
The temporary buzz we get from an email in our inbox, a comment on our latest post or retweet might feel good. But, it pales in comparison to the joy of flow. But it’s something we can only experience when we’re deeply immersed in a cognitively demanding task.
Your body would feel amazing if you started eating salads instead of donuts. And your mind feels fantastic when you replace distractions with deep work. Once you’ve had a taste of the latter, you’ll stop craving the former.
2. Your Life is More Meaningful
Your life takes on a greater sense of meaning and purpose when you learn to manage your attention. You stop putting energy into meaningless things like updating your status or reading the president’s latest tweets.
Instead, you spend it on more meaningful work. You write the book you’ve always wanted to write, learn how to play an instrument, or build your business. As a result, your life becomes more fulfilling.
- When my friend, Steve, quit Facebook for 12 weeks, he ended up signing his biggest client to date.
- The times I’ve taken a break from social media have helped me finish chapters of books and much more.
Distraction ultimately leads to a fairly meaningless life. Attention leads to a richer, more rewarding and meaningful life. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt observed in his TED Talk, paying attention makes us happy. Seeking it doesn’t.
3. You Become More Successful
In An Audience of One, I shared the following quote:
“When you put a magnifying glass over a piece of paper in the hot sun, it catches fire.”
The same thing happens when you focus your attention on one task. You shift from focus to flow, get more done in less time and every aspect of performance goes through the roof. Cal Newport has built an incredibly popular blog, written multiple books, and received tenure at a prestigious university in record time. There’s no more evident example of the fact that attention is the currency of achievement.
We have a limited number of things that we can pay attention to at any given moment. This is just one of the many reasons why multitasking is so ineffective. “At any one time, your attentional space should hold at most two key things that you are processing. What you intend to accomplish, and what you’re currently doing,” says Chris Bailey in his book, Hyperfocus. Since your attentional space is limited, the way you increase your attention span is by decreasing the competition for it.
Part 3: How Your Attention Span Works
We can only give our attention to a limited number of things at one time. If you focus on a single task for a long enough time, you enter a state of flow. When you do, the impossible becomes possible and you experience a 500% increase in productivity.
The Definition of Distraction
Distractions are pieces of goal-irrelevant information that we either encounter in our external surroundings or generate internally within our own minds. – Adam Gazzaley
Even though most of the books, blog posts, and podcasts you read are about digital distractions, there are multiple categories of distraction. Reducing them is essential to getting better at attention management.
Visual distractions are anything you can see that competes for your attention. This is why I limit the number of items on my desk to a book, pen, Moleskine, and computer. Everything from the lighting in a room to the font size on your computer could be a visual distraction.
One of the most important investments you can make in your productivity is a pair of noise cancellation headphones. Not only do you not hear anything that might be a distraction. They send a signal to people that you want to be left alone.
Digital distractions are what Jim Kwik called the modern-day supervillains during his interview on the Unmistakable Creative. Email, social media, cell phones, notifications and text messages are just a handful of digital distractions that have a negative impact on attention management.
The temperature of your room, your chair, and the desk you work at can all be physical distractions. If your chair is uncomfortable or the room is too hot, it’s going to be difficult for you to concentrate on anything.
All of your behavior is the result of the 9 environments that make up your life. And if you want to improve your attention management abilities, you have to design an environment conducive to focus.
Anything that is not relevant to the task at hand is a distraction. When you’re trying to write, email is a distraction. If you’re trying to read a book, your phone is a distraction. Ask yourself, “Do I need this for the task at hand?” If the answer is “no,” it’s a distraction.
Study after study shows that we’re not effective at multi-tasking. When we switch tasks and return to our original task, we experience attention residue.
Say you’re in the middle of writing, reading or doing deep work. You decide to take a “quick peek” at your email or social media. And you discover a fire you can’t put out right this minute:
- An irate customer
- Your kid got in a fight
- The bank overcharged you
You can’t return to the original task without the fire on your mind. Your ability to work on the first task suffers for a non-trivial amount of time to follow. “If you want to produce value with your brain, nothing is worse than task shifting,” says Cal Newport.
Contrary to what you might believe, multi-tasking makes you less efficient. You can get twice as much done in half the time if you work on one task.
Part 4: Getting Better at Attention Management
1. Designing a Focus-Friendly Environment
Limit Your Inputs
How many things are competing for your attention right this moment? If you’re like most people, you have:
- Your phone next to you
- Browser tabs open
- Email and instant messages flooding your inbox
- An endless stream of notifications
With so much input competing for your attention, no wonder you’re struggling. But how many of these things are necessary, vital, or relevant to the task at hand? If something that’s not relevant to the task at hand is competing for your attention, shut it down.
Leave your Phone Out Of the Room
Smartphones are the biggest source of distractions in modern life. They’ve become appendages and leashes. To deal with how distracting phones are, we’ve created apps, software, and all sorts of other solutions.
The simplest solution to make your phone less of a distraction is to leave it out of the room or turn it off. I use my phone every morning to listen to music while I’m writing. But, I connect it to a pair of Bluetooth headphones, start the music and leave it in another room.
Drown Out Sound with Noise-Canceling Headphones
Noise-canceling headphones reduce auditory input. You don’t get distracted by the sounds of notifications, conversations, phone calls or text messages. They also create a boundary. People are less likely to interrupt you when you have a pair of big headphones on.
Work in Full-Screen mode
By working in full-screen mode, you ensure that nothing else pops up and competes for your attention. Whether you’re writing a blog post or designing a presentation, working in full-screen mode forces you to single-task.
Change the Way You Deal with Email
Between communication, newsletters, and updates, our inboxes are flooded with information that’s irrelevant to our lives. Nobody ever changed the world by checking email. Yet, it takes up so much of our mental bandwidth.
There’s something interesting I’ve observed about email. We don’t need to spend as much time on it as we do. At least twice a week, I drive up to the mountains and spend half the day snowboarding.
These days, I check email once or twice. Thanks to tools like Superhuman, it takes no more than 15 minutes to go through all my emails. But, on the days when I’m in front of the computer, I check email more than twice, even though it’s unnecessary.
So how do you deal with email? The copywriter Dan Kennedy filters his email into two categories:
- Is this person trying to give me money?
- Is this person trying to get me to do something?
I took this one step further. I created a separate email address for people who give me money. And my other email address has an autoresponder that says the following:
Nobody ever changed the world sending and replying to emails. In an effort to spend less time replying to emails, limit my inputs, and more time focused on deep work, shipping important projects, interviews for the Unmistakable Creative Podcast, and the growth of our business I’m drastically reducing the time I spend on email. If you need to get in touch with me for any of the below, please use this form and select one of the following options in the dropdown.
Note : If you’re a book publicist who has just sent a galley letter please read our article on how to pitch a podcast guest. Otherwise send a physical copy of the book to 2987 23rd Boulder CO 80304. If it’s of interest we’ll be in touch.
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Question For Srini: If it’s something I can address I’ll send you a Loom video.
Unfortunately, I’m unable to reply to every email I receive. Or I would in the words of Neil Gaiman, “become a person who replies to email for a living.”
Spend Time in Nature
For 10 years, surfing was my lifeline. It was the fuel for my creative fire. What appeared frivolous on the surface eventually became the foundation of my first book with a publisher. Now, I avoid external meetings two days a week. And drive to the mountains and spend a few hours snowboarding.
On the surface, this might seem unproductive. But nature has a powerful impact on your creativity. Spending time in nature forces you to unplug. It slows down your mind, improves your focus, and leads to flow.
While I’m snowboarding, I come up with ideas for blog posts and solve problems I never could have otherwise.
Consciously, it might seem like you’re not thinking much when you spend time in nature. But unconsciously, creative ideas are percolating and breakthroughs are on the verge of occurring. It’s not a coincidence that some of the most successful writers I know are action sports athletes.
Uninterrupted time is critical to better attention management. Interruptions cause us to keep shifting our focus. We get a little done on many things as opposed to a lot on a handful. With one focused hour a day of uninterrupted time, your attention management will get significantly better.
Quit Social Media or Embrace Digital Minimalism
There are many opportunity costs to excessive social media use:
- You’re less present with the people in your life
- You don’t make progress on things you care about
- It gradually turns you into the cognitive equivalent of an athlete who smokes
At the beginning of last year, I quit social media for 30 days. And I was happier, more productive, and felt much better about my life. It had almost zero negative impact on my life. Instead of trying to make your life look amazing on the Internet, start building one that actually is.
2. Retrain Your Attention Span
If you’ve spent the last few years in a perpetual state of distraction, a focus-friendly environment isn’t enough to improve your attention management. You have to retrain your attention span.
Cal Newport helps college students quit using social media. As you might imagine, for people who grew up with cell phones, it’s incredibly difficult. So he has them start small.
First, he gets them to delete social media from their phone. The less accessible something is, the less likely they are to use it. Having to reinstall the app creates friction, which in turn helps people resist distracting apps on their phones.
Then, he has them leverage interval training. Rather than trying to focus for hours on end, he has them focus for 10 minutes, then 20, and so on. The key to this is not to cave into distraction the moment the interval is over. It’s the digital equivalent of smoking a cigarette after a workout.
A meditation practice can improve your attention span, help you stress less and accomplish more. And you don’t have to spend years at an ashram. You can leverage the power of meditation in as little as 2 minutes a day.
I’ve tried meditation apps and many other things. But the most effective meditation practice I’ve found is box-breathing. In his interview with Chase Jarvis, Steven Kotler said the following. After struggling to meditate for two minutes, box-breathing made it easy to get to 10 minutes.
Once you learn to manage your attention, you gain the ability to experience flow. Flow leads to a 500% increase in productivity and is the superpower that makes the impossible possible. More commonly known as “being in the zone,” flow is a higher state of consciousness that sends all aspects of performance through the roof.
It’s what gets us from Zero to Dangerous in terms of high performance.
In flow, authors write Pulitzer Prize-winning books, quarterbacks come back in the Superbowl, and Steph Curry shoots the lights out. There are several flow triggers, but attention management is the most important one of all.
“Flow follows focus,” says Steven Kotler. Unless your attention is in the here and now, you can not get into a flow state. As a surfer, if you’re not fully present when you paddle for a wave, you’ll wipe out. Same for a snowboarder going 60 miles an hour. The kind of focus that leads to flow is uninterrupted. To achieve this, your attitude has to be “Fuck off. I’m flowing.”
If you want to make a goal clear, put a number in front of it.
- Write something is a vague goal
- Write 1000 words is a clear goal
With a clear goal like a word count, it’s objective. You hit it or you didn’t.
My golden rule for the challenge skills ratio is bend don’t break. You want something challenging enough that it pushes you. But easy enough that you can actually do it. For me, 50-foot waves are guaranteed death. But for Laird Hamilton, they lead to flow. The optimal level of challenge occurs at a midpoint between boredom and anxiety.
It takes about 90 minutes of focus on one task to reach a state of flow. That’s why attention management is such a critical ingredient.
The first 90 minutes might feel excruciating. But, when you reach flow, time flies. Hours feel like minutes. in a flow state, I can write a 2000 word blog post in 30 minutes. When I’m not in flow it takes me over an hour to write 1000 words.
4. Limit the Number of Goals You Set
When we have too many goals, we make a little bit of progress with lots of goals. But when we limit the number of goals we set, we make more progress on a few and gain momentum.
“The more thinly you slice your attention, the less focused you become. The less focused you become, the less progress you make. This is why you feel like you’re not getting a lot done, even though you’re “super busy.” – Ryder Caroll
Learn to say “no” to everything that’s not aligned with your essential priorities. Leverage the power of objectives and key results. Set fewer goals and you’ll accomplish more of them.
5. Do Deep Work
Cal Newport defines deep work as a cognitively demanding task that requires you to focus for an extended period of time:
- Updating your status, sending emails or uploading your pictures to Instagram does not qualify as deep work
- Computer programming, writing a book, or reading a book does
A good filter is whether or not you could outsource the work to unskilled labor. If the answer is no, it qualifies as deep work.
If habits are the compound interest of self-improvement, attention management is the compound interest of creative and professional success. When we learn to manage our attention, life becomes more meaningful and rewarding. We’re able to bring projects and ideas to life.
If you’re a person with a short attention span, reading this might cause you to feel overwhelmed. But I want you to realize that your short attention span can be a superpower.
People with short attention spans have the ability to focus intensely on something they care about in a way other people don’t. You can do in a few hours what most people can’t in a week. So it’s just a matter of seeing a liability as an asset. That’s why so many entrepreneurs and creative people have ADHD.
Employees with ADHD would be more productive if companies got rid of 8-hour workdays. And individuals who have ADHD shouldn’t aim for hours of Zen-like focus. Instead, apply false time constraints and aim to create more in less time.