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Stop Trying to Manage Your Time and Start Learning to Manage Your Attention

Ironically, time management is a waste of time.  Have you ever met someone who can actually manage time?  Unless you are Dr. Who, the fictitious Time Lord, you can’t control time.  You can’t stretch it, you can’t slow it down, and you can’t create more of it. I thought this was obvious, yet “manage my time” still comes up as one of the most common goals set by my clients.

My advice is: stop trying to manage your time and start learning to manage your attention.

Setting aside for the moment Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, time is a constant, and it’s completely beyond your control. Your attention, on the other hand, is something with huge variability, and it’s largely within your control.  By managing your attention, rather than trying to control time, you recognize two powers…

First, you have the power to change your state of mind.

I’m sure you’ve experienced the way time seems to slow down or speed up, depending on circumstances. The 5 minutes before you clock out of a boring work day goes much slower than 5 minutes engrossed in a thrilling movie. Of course, time didn’t change. Your state of mind changed.  Most people I know want to learn “time management” because they’re stressed out trying to do it all. The foundation of stress reduction is managing your attention, changing your state of mind.

You have the power to change your state of mind, but you’ve probably never learned how to intentionally do it, on demand. In simple terms, it’s a matter of learning to notice and label your state of mind, then take an intentional action to shift it. Sounds simple, yes, but it takes practice. I can’t teach it to you in a blog post, but I will tell you, learning to observe your own mind—to meditate mindfully—is the path to mastery.

This ability to notice and shift your own state of mind is what enables your second power…

You have the power to choose where and how to spend your time.

You get to decide how you will spend the finite amount of time you have to live.  We often forget this power because the world puts pressure on us that influence our choices.  But if you want to make better use of your time, you must master your attention and choose wisely how to spend your limited time on earth.

Here’s my formula for how to do it.

  1. Train your mind.  Exercise your power to change your state of mind by learning to observe your mind, through mindfulness meditation.  There’s nothing esoteric or religious about this; it’s just a method of training your mind to be more focused, more responsive, more in your control.  Pick a good app and get started.  Two of my recommendations are Waking Up and Headspace.
  2. Define your purpose in life.  Consider the question of why you exist.  Decide what impact you want to have in this life of yours.  Articulate and clarify your values.  Then lead your life and your career on purpose and in alignment with your values. You can hire a coach to help you with this, or you can start by reading chapter 2 of my book, Corporate Life Is Hell.
  3. Create a system to relieve pressure on your attention.  You want to manage your time because you’re stressed out, and you have demands you must meet.  You have too much to do and not enough time to do it.  You work hard and “multi-task,” but your brain did not evolve to manage tasks in this way.  As a result, your attention quickly becomes overwhelmed.  You must protect your limited amount of attention by creating a reliable system, outside of your brain, to keep track of everything you need to do.  Personally, I’ve been using Getting Things Done for about 10 years now.  I combine it with Evernote so I have an extension of my brain in the cloud.
  4. Choose wisely.  You have the ability to choose in every moment of your life.  You can choose what to do, where to do it, how to do it, not to do it, who to do it with, etc.  We forget this because our choices are mostly driven by conditioning and reactive patterns we’ve learned, but if you do steps 1-3, you are in a much better position to take charge of your choices about how you will spend your limited time on this earth.  Choose wisely.

Have you read my book yet?  Check it out.

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