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Busy, busy, busy.
Ask anyone how they are and that’s the answer you’ll hear 95% of the time (that’s not statistically correct, but I feel like it would be about right!).
We’re doing everything and trying to keep everyone happy. Yet we’re still feeling guilty for not doing enough. Many mums are in survival mode every day and they keep on going like this because they can’t see another way.
How on earth are we supposed to pack everything we need to do into each day?
I used to say “I don’t have enough time” ALL the time. I said it to others and to myself. It definitely felt true.
I finally realised, that I have as much time as everyone else. Constantly telling myself that I don’t have enough time, actually just makes me feel stressed and sabotages my efforts to be productive.
Over the years, I’ve taught and tried many time management techniques. You might have tried them too. Some have been really helpful but I’ve found that it’s even harder to manage my time now that I’m a mum.
Not only do I have more things to juggle, but I have less control of my schedule (we all know how toddlers love schedules!) and I’m more exhausted than ever!
I’ve had many a night when I’ve sat down at 8pm, with a few good hours ahead of me to work or get other things done, and my brain feels like it’s in slow motion. I just can’t think straight because I’m so tired.
Have you had a night like that?
Attention: our greatest resource
We can try to manage the limited time we have. But there’s something that’s more limited and valuable than our time that we need to manage and protect.
This was brought to my attention (pun intended) by Graham Alcott, author of “How to be a Productivity Ninja“, who says that we have finite attention and infinite things we could do. I know this is true, since I’m the master of creating infinite to-do lists and I’m the one sitting on the lounge hardly functioning at 8pm.
Graham advises that purposeful, considered decision making is the key to protecting and using your attention, so you can get the important things done, and still stay calm and healthy.
Managing your attention, includes looking after your wellbeing, as you won’t be able to maximise the amount of productive attention you can give, if you aren’t feeling good.
In my previous post about finding balance in your life, I highlighted how focusing on what’s important to you can help you find balance in your life more often. When you manage your attention, you are focusing on what’s important to you.
I love this shift from managing time to managing attention. It feels like I have more control over my attention than my time.
I can’t control how quickly the seconds and minutes pass by. I can’t completely control how many times per day I get interrupted, or how the plan may change at the last minute due to something my child needs. Nor can I control when emails come in and how many times people post on social media. But I can control how much attention I choose to give these things at any given time. I can control my response. Time is external to me whereas my attention is all mine to manage and protect.
Managing your attention involves choosing what to give your attention to and taking action to look after yourself so that you can focus when you need to. When you know that your attention is on the right things, then you’ll feel calmer and get more done.
How to get started with managing your attention
If you’d like to try managing your attention instead of your time, here are 6 ways to get started:
1. Check (and probably lower) your expectations
No matter how good you get at managing your attention, it is still finite. We need to be realistic about how much we can actually manage, especially if we want to sustain it for a long time. If you keep pushing yourself to reach unattainable standards you’ll experience much more stress, worry, overwhelm and potentially burnout.
How much do you expect yourself to do?
Are you holding yourself to higher standards (including perfection) than the ones you hold everyone else to? (you wouldn’t be alone)
Sometimes we hold ourselves to standards that are unrealistic, unnecessary, or that we don’t even think are important, but have taken on from other people. For example, we take on extra work or responsibilities because we feel like we “should” be able to manage or because others seem to be managing.
One area that often gets women into trouble is saying yes to every request for their assistance or time. Expecting that you can always answer with a “yes”, is not an effective way of managing your attention. It’s more helpful to expect that you will say “yes” for every request that is manageable and important.
Can you afford to lower your expectations of yourself, feel less stressed and still get the important things done?
2. Know what’s important to you
This is the key to making good decisions about managing your attention. If you know what’s important to you, then at any time, you can make a choice about what to focus on.
Are you giving your attention to what’s most important or are you spending it on what’s easier, habitual, fun, or convenient?
The things that are not important, are distractions. Distractions are part of life. You can minimise but not completely eliminate them. Your brain even invents them! You can choose to give distractions less attention or none at all. I’m sure we all have things we could stop doing right now without any negative impact on our lives. Then we can give that extra attention to something more important!
Remember that just because something is important to someone else, that doesn’t automatically make it important to you. Make a considered choice about where to focus your attention.
Even if something is urgent, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s important. Limit the attention you give to things that aren’t important. Take an acceptable shortcut, aim for a lower and still acceptable standard, or don’t do it at all.
If everything you’re doing is truly important to you and you’re still feeling overwhelmed and stretched, then eventually something will have to give because that isn’t a sustainable situation. Asking yourself why you are giving your attention to each thing you’re doing may help you identify some priorities.
3. Allocate attention to downtime
I know this seems hard. I struggle with it myself. But we need to devote some of our attention to looking after our wellbeing, because that’s what makes any attention management strategy sustainable. I find it incredibly hard to do nothing and I know my own “downtime” is not always really restful. If you’re constantly on social media during your downtime, you aren’t really allowing your mind to rest and refresh. When you’re fully present in downtime, your mind is actually very busy, but in a way that creates more energy and attention.
4. Record and schedule
This works so well for me. Recording and scheduling allows you to stop trying to remember everything and to stop worrying about forgetting things. It takes the information out of your mind, and stores it somewhere safe and accessible.
Have a system to record things you need to do, ideas, appointments and anything else that you’re working hard to remember. Whether it’s paper based or electronic, make it easily accessible and simple to use so it doesn’t create more work. When things are recorded, you don’t need to dedicate any of your attention to it until you choose to.
A schedule helps you to have confidence that there will be time for all the important things to get done. When you’re playing with the kids you don’t need to be thinking about the phone calls you have to make, because you’ve made time for them later. When you’re exercising you don’t need to be stressed about the work you have to do, because you know you’ll have time later.
Scheduling also helps you to complete tasks faster, because typically our “work” expands to fill the time we allocate. So if you schedule something for 3 hours rather than 1 hour, you’ll probably find it will take you longer to complete.
If you have high expectations of how much you can manage, you may find yourself over scheduled. This can make managing your attention difficult, when unexpected things pop up (as they always do) and you find yourself with little flexibility to manage them. Always leave some breathing room in your schedule.
5. Know when you’re at your best
We all have times of the day when we’re more productive and focused. Take advantage of these times by doing the most important things or the ones that require the most brainpower.
To make this time even more valuable, focus on one thing at a time. If you spread your attention too thin, you’ll end up making more mistakes and completing tasks more slowly. Multitasking requires your brain to switch its attention rapidly between tasks. Every time you switch tasks your brain takes an average of 23 mins and 11 seconds to get back to the same level of focus. Given that we often switch focus more often than every 23 mins, we often going about our day without benefiting from giving our full attention.
Remove as many distractions as possible and take short breaks if you’re focusing for a long time. These breaks will help you sustain your focus and attention longer.
Lastly, when you know you’re not at your best, consider how might you refresh yourself so you can get more done at these times. I find that the right essential oils can help energise me and help me concentrate for a little longer. Some fresh air might have a similar effect. Maybe you just need some downtime or sleep so that you’ll be able to give your full attention to the following day.
6. Celebrate what you have done
This is surprisingly helpful. One of the things that steals some of our attention from the important things, is worrying about what we’re not doing or whether we’re going to get everything done. Taking time to review your progress and celebrate what you have done helps you acknowledge your progress and feel like you’re on top of things.
Lovely mum, managing your attention could help you feel less stressed, while getting the important things done.
Graham Alcott insists that attention is the most valuable currency in the world. How are you spending yours?
Which of these 6 tips do you need to try? I’d love to know, so leave me a comment and tell me.