In my 20’s after some challenges at work, and the possibility of getting fired from yet another job, I went to see a psychiatrist and told him about my issues:
- Throughout the time I was in college, I couldn’t focus on a lecture and ended up with a lousy GPA.
- I couldn’t sit still in a meeting for more than about 20 minutes before I completely zoned out.
- Despite the low volume of work I was assigned, I made mistakes, and many things frequently slipped through the cracks.
After my appointment, I got a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder. Despite medicating me, I still hated my job and my performance didn’t improve very much. Eventually, I left that job and went to business school.
In terms of my attention span, not much has changed:
- When we have team meetings for Unmistakable Creative, my team members know that they’ll lose me after about 20 minutes. They have to occasionally say “hey Srini have we lost you?” The nice thing about running a company is you can say yes to that question, not get fired and ask them to hurry up. Kingshuk our content and growth strategist even says “you kind of suck in meetings.” He’s not wrong.
- When I’m at a conference that is nothing but sessions all day long, I end up going back to my hotel room because I can’t pay attention.
- If I’m dating a girl and she insists that we talk on the phone daily, I know that it’s a recipe for disaster. It also drove my ex-girlfriends crazy. Personally, if I saw you yesterday and you’re coming to my house again today, I think a phone conversation is unnecessary. The irony of this, of course, is that I have conversations via Skype for the interviews on Unmistakable Creative multiple times a week.
The one thing that has changed however is my ability to produce. Despite my short attention span, I’ve managed to do the following:
So what exactly changed? I learned how my brain works and have designed my days to get the most out of them. Part of why I’ve had to develop repeatable systems for my creative work is because of my short attention span. So what can you do if you have a short attention span?
Every one of us has times of day when our ability to focus is at its best and its worst.
The reason I’m so vigilant about spending the first hour of my day on high-value activities is that my attention span is highest right when I wake up in the morning. I’m able to get a disproportionate amount of work done in the first few hours when compared to the rest of my day.
So how do you take advantage of this when you wake up?
1) Plan your days the night before. As I’ve said before this leads to a significant increase in your productivity. It also reduces decision fatigue.
2) Wake up early: When it comes to your attention span, not all hours of the day are created equal. By beginning your creative work early in the morning, it’s more likely that time will be completely uninterrupted. Your mind is also not too active yet, which makes it much easier to focus on whatever you’re doing. And you haven’t depleted your willpower by making lots of decisions. It’s much easier to read 50 pages and write 1000 words first thing in the morning than it is later in the day.
3) Don’t turn your devices on first thing in the morning. With the exception of using the Calm app to meditate for 10 minutes, I don’t use my phone for the first 2–3 hours of any day. Once I’m done with the meditation, I put my phone out of sight.
If you’re driven and dedicated to sharpening your creative process, I’ve put together a deeper look into my best methods in this very actionable PDF.
4) Do the most important thing first
Given that I’m working on a manuscript for my second book, the most important thing that I do every morning is writing. The creators of the productivity planner pose an important question that I urge you to consider when it comes to planning your days.
“If the only thing I got done today was this, would I be satisfied?”
That’s a great litmus test for identifying your most important task.
Note: The same approach can be taken for night owls. The only difference is you’re staying up late instead of waking up early.
One focused hour a day of uninterrupted creation time will do far more for you than 6 hours a day of unfocused and perpetually interrupted creation time. Say you do 5 hours of uninterrupted creation time for a week and you use that time to write 1000 words each day. By the end of the week, you’ll have 5000 words. If you repeated this process over 52 weeks you’d have 250,000 words.
Distractions and interruptions have unique impacts on your brain. While both can shake up your short term memory cup, making you forget what just happened, interruptions are far worse than distractions. Distractions disrupt the connections between the middle frontal gyrus and the seeing brain (visual cortex), but they don’t obliterate it, so your brain still remembers whatever you were doing and you can come back to it easily. When you’re interrupted however switching tasks derails you, and this connection falls apart. Although distractions can reduce your productivity, if you do not tag and filter them, interruptions can be even more disruptive. — Srini Pillay
One of the ironic upsides to a short attention span is that it gives you an ability to focus intensely on things. With intense focus and deep work you’ll get more done in less time, experience more flow, and you get an almost disproportionate increase in production capacity. What takes the average person 3–4 hours you can often do in 45 minutes.
Most of our time management issues are really attention management issues. But if you can work in intense bursts of focus you’ll be amazed by your progress. When it comes to creative work, face time is far less relevant than production capacity.
For those of you who’d prefer to have this post as a PDF, you can get here in this swipe file.
One simple way to work in intense focus blocks is to use a tool like the productivity planner and the Pomodoro method. You decide on a task and then decide how many 25 minute spurts you’ll work in. Whatever you do, don’t multitask. Not only does it inhibit your ability to get into flow, it forces you to start the Pomodoro over. Here’s a snapshot below of the productivity planner:
Often we bite off more than we can chew. Our days get wasted because, in an effort to get everything done, we get nothing done. Our attention spans are somewhat limited and we inevitably hit a point of diminishing returns during our day. This is why you should limit the number of items on your to-do list.
Say you have 20 items on your to-do list every day. That’s 100 items in the week. Let’s say you only get 2–3 done each day. At the end of the week, you’ll have done about 10 out of the 100 items. On the flip side, let’s say you limit yourself to your 5 essential priorities. At the end of the week, you’ll have completed 20 activities and because you’re actually finishing everything on your list, you’ll start to gain momentum.
Believe it or not, downtime actually improves your attention span. When we check email multiple times a day and use social media excessively, we become the cognitive equivalent of athletes that smoke.
One way to take advantage of downtime is to develop a daily meditation habit. On the mornings when I skip my meditation practice, my focus tends to be a bit more scattered.
It’s also important to have a shutdown ritual if you’re serious about doing deep work. I turn off my devices from 7 pm to 9 pm. Increase focus in the morning and less anxiety are two great benefits of reducing your screen time. Pick a time when you’re going to shut down and don’t use your devices after that.
One of the biggest mistakes we make when it comes to our attention span is to push too far beyond our cognitive capabilities. It’s a bit like going to the gym and trying to make the jump from lifting 25-pound barbells to 80-pound ones within a day.
8 hour work days, ridiculously long meetings, and conferences where people spend from morning until evening in sessions with a carb loaded lunch are unfortunately all too common.
In order to really get the best out of our attention span, we have to design experiences as much as we do create a task list. When I talk to people who plan events, I encourage them to think of themselves less as meeting planners and more as experience designers. The same applies to your day to day.
When I worked for an online travel company, we had a meeting every Monday. More often than not, the only reason we had this meeting was because it was Monday. As a remote employee, I dialed in from Costa Rica once and listened to our marketing discuss the broken air conditioner in the office for 45 minutes. If you find yourself in meetings like this, buy a copy of Al Pitampalli’s book Read this Before your Next Meeting for everyone on your team.
The truth is we were never meant to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day staring at a screen. We’ve imposed the working structure of the industrial revolution on schools and work in the information age. This isn’t really an issue of attention span as much as it is an issue a poorly designed environment that’s not conducive to creativity, productive or focus.
Part of the reason I’ve been able to produce the volume of work that I have is that my days are designed in such a way that I don’t spend all day in front of my computer. Most of what I do gets done in 2–3 hours a day of deep work.
If you want to get the most of out of your employees, don’t measure facetime, measure their output. What gets measured gets managed and you might get people measuring face time at the expensive of work that actually matters.
It’s hard to talk about attention span without looking at the role of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Author Dan Pink’s research showed that we reach a point of diminishing returns rather quickly with extrinsic motivation. You can see his explanation in the video below.
When I was in my 20’s, I held a number of sales positions where there was always the potential for more money. But those positions all lacked three essential factors for motivation: autonomy, purpose, and mastery.
Today all 3 of these factors are part of my work. One of the easiest ways to fix a person’s attention span is to make sure that they are intrinsically motivated by the work that they do. When you love what you do, it’s far less of a struggle to focus than it is when you hate what you do. Often when people are not motivated, it’s because they don’t find their work engaging. When you mismatch talent and environment, what you end up with is subpar performance.
It might seem strange, but I’d also say that surfing has played a significant role in strengthening my attention span. There are probably a few reasons for this.
The most obvious one is that action sports are a direct gateway to flow states. When you’re in flow you’re usually enjoying yourself so much that it’s actually difficult to become distracted. Anytime I get out of the water after a good surf session I can write for a few hours, and my best work emerges. As I’ve said before when you’re stuck mentally move physically. The other thing that happens when we exercise is that we get rid of excess energy and anxiety that often gets in the way of our ability to maintain our attention span.
According to attention restoration theory, people can concentrate better after time spent in nature. Case in point, I finished this article and one of the last sections of my manuscript after a 2-hour surf session. Maybe the founder of Patagonia was onto something when he said: “Let my people go surfing.”
A few years ago a short attention span was not being able to focus for 30 minutes. These days it’s amazing if people can focus for more than 5 minutes. We read more status updates than we do books. It’s easier to compose a caption for Instagram than it is to write something with depth. People can’t finish reading articles let alone books.
But here’s the good news about all this. If you can sustain your focus for 30 to 45 minutes, you’ll have a big competitive edge. On the surface, a short attention span might appear to be a disadvantage. But with the right systems and habits, you can turn it into a disproportionate advantage