Personal Productivity

Attention Span Is a Superpower

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
tags Focus Work & Life
“Pay attention to what you pay attention to.” ― John Green

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Attention Span Is a Superpower

We all have the ability to think and analyze things that appear in our lives to effectively determine what we should do with each of them and also to determine which of them we should do absolutely nothing with.

But many people don’t do this, or don’t do it often. Instead of taking the time to think about the commitments they have in their life and work, they leave it to their mind to remind them of things. But the mind is not designed to do this effectively; it will remind us of things at any time, sometimes when we can’t do anything about it, and sometimes when it’s too late. Other times it doesn’t remind us at all.

In a world where we are subjected to constant distractions and temptations, where our attention span is far from optimal, we forget to think. And, when we don’t, our mind constantly disturbs us with that email we don’t feel like answering, those notes from a meeting that don’t seem too important, or that somewhat ambiguous task we’re procrastinating on.

When we don’t “think” and let the environment take over, we tend to put off important tasks (sometimes without even realizing it) in favor of lower-priority but more enjoyable or less demanding activities.

Thinking, paying attention, concentrating… these are actions that require more and more effort. And the consequences of not doing so can be very negative, not only in the workplace. When a person stops being proactive and gets caught up in the environment, their emotional well-being suffers, their stress and anxiety levels increase, and their interpersonal relationships deteriorate.

To overcome our environment we need systems that help us think, that give us the space to reflect and be creative. If we get rid of distractions we will have all our energy and attention span to engage with our world to the proper extent.

Attention span is a superpower you can’t afford to lose.

The goal of systems like GTD is to optimize your attention span, following this simple logic:

  • If you cannot concentrate, you can’t perform any activity with total effectiveness.
  • To focus properly, you must eliminate distractions.
  • Eliminating distractions is tantamount to managing your commitments well.

Distractions and Commitment Management

When you are doing a certain task (not necessarily work; think of reading a book, for example) and you are assaulted by thoughts that prevent you from concentrating, it’s very likely that your mind is reminding you of some commitment that you have not managed properly.

The mind remembers things (and distracts), but doesn’t manage commitments. The mind also doesn’t have its priorities straight, so it’s very likely to bother you with the most recent things or with the flashiest things, but not with the most important things.

You need an external system to manage commitments correctly. When your mind knows with certainty that something is correctly managed somewhere, it no longer bothers you with that thought.

To break this cycle of mental distractions you need to capture, clarify and organize all your commitments so that you can act on them when necessary. The mind only stops bothering you when there is a system in place that works better than the mind itself.

You don’t need to finish all these things for the mind to stop remembering them, you just need to manage them in some way for the mind to consider them completed and stop bothering you. This is called the Zeigarnik effect.

Just as you put events on your calendar and forget about them, you need similar containers (lists, folders, notebooks) for all the other stuff, the things that are not tied to a specific date. You have to trust that all your commitments are in the right place and that you will pay attention to them at the right time.

The problem with commitments that are different from calendar events is that they are often not well defined and, moreover, there is no standard system for managing them.

This is where a tool like GTD comes in, providing the necessary structure to manage all your commitments, whatever their nature, in an efficient way.

Your internal distractions can be drastically reduced if you have a way to neatly organize everything that grabs your attention, with clearly defined actions so that you are not forced to think about them again, and if you can follow up on those actions at will.

But of course, for that, you must force yourself to think, to spend a few seconds to define what is each thing you allow to enter your life and decide what you are going to do with it if you are going to do anything at all (set the next action). You must get used to not leaving anything in an undetermined situation because that is what leads to poor performance in most activities and to a natural state of anxiety.

Once you decide what actions you need to take and write down the necessary reminders in the appropriate lists, you get that breathing space you need to follow your instincts.

Better management of commitments → Fewer distractions → Increased attention span

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Francisco Sáez
@franciscojsaez

Francisco is the founder and CEO of FacileThings. He is also a Software Engineer who is passionate about personal productivity and the GTD philosophy as a means to a better life.

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One comment

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Commented about 2 months ago Gary Karg

Thank you

avatar Gary Karg

Thank you

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