How to rescue your attention


Reading time: 5 mins


Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts.


Albert Einstein



If we are truly honest with ourselves we can all attest to the energy draining demands that are placed upon our brain power these days.  The digital economy has brought immeasurable benefits to society and the human race as a whole and yet we have never been more busy, more overwhelmed and more distracted.


If we don’t recognise the symptoms of our illness then we will be unable to mobilise our effort towards a more effective way to make decisions.  With that in mind you might recognise some of these symptoms:


  • You fear making the wrong decision and as a result, avoid making any decision at all;

  • You feel compelled to pick the “perfect” decision, and in doing so, making the decision is delayed until yet more research is done;

  • Sources of data presented during discovery are conflicting, inconclusive, and no clear answers appear;

  • You are torn between many available solutions.


Everybody has heard the term “keep it simple”, in my former military life we added the suffix “stupid” to the phrase presumably in an effort to really ram the principle home but there is some science that supports it.  According to the principle of Occam’s razor when confronting problems in life the "simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones."   Or as Einstein elegantly summarised ”everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  Thus when presented with competing hypotheses to solve a problem, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions


It seems intuitively obvious that we should seek to simplify and economise our energy towards only the most challenging problems of the day and yet…we exist in an environment where the primary profit optimiser, the holy grail of social media, is our attention time and how long it can be captured for.  There is a vicious war for this most precious of resources and so we end up being treated like a message in a bottle constantly being tossed around in an ocean of choices, decisions and distractions without ever reaching a destination.


Perhaps the goal should be the deliberate and prioritised processing of information and demands upon our time so that where possible we are acting in the most effective manner that is aligned to our most pressing values, goals and desires.  Energy conservation is a key factor here because if we exhaust our cognitive reserves on mundane and irrelevant distractions then we will not have enough will power and determination to do the things that will help us grow and improve.


Tools for prioritisation and productivity


In his seminal book Getting things done (GTD), David Allen produces the authoritative manual for stress-free productivity, which helps you set up a system of lists, reminders and weekly reviews, in order to free your mind from having to remember tasks and to-dos and instead let it work at full focus on the task at hand.  


I’ll highlight a few of the key lessons I have personally taken from the book and try to apply with discipline and rigour to my life:


  1. Use a “collection bucket” to store things outside your mind and stay focused.

  2. Create a “next actions” list for all your projects to avoid thinking in the moment.

  3. Do a weekly review of everything, or else


1.  Collection bucket


It serves as a means to collect all interruptions, whether they come in the form of thoughts in your mind or to-do’s handed over to you by co-workers.  The idea is that whatever lands in your brain or lap while you’re busy working goes in there.


This lets you deflect interruptions as they occur and keeps your mind from derailing while you’re on a productivity roll which in turn promotes increased focus on the task at hand and present moment living.


Of course this system is only good if you empty your collection bucket or buckets regularly, Allen suggests weekly.


2.  Create a “next actions” list for all your projects to avoid thinking in the moment.


A common mistake people make with to-do lists is that they enforce arbitrary time limits for their completion and often we are guilty of grossly over-estimating how much time things will actually take in advance and how much we can realistically achieve.


David Allen suggests you do this instead: Create a “next actions” list, where you list out all the specific tasks (= takes less than 30 minutes) of your current projects.


That way you always know what to work on next, when you have the time and energy to work, meaning you just pull out the list, pick a task and go.


You can even have multiple “next actions” lists and sort them by project or location of where you’re able to do the tasks on it.


An action without its constituent tasks articulated becomes an impediment to productivity and a distraction to progress.  I can personally attest to the benefit of a next actions based approach to effort management.  It really is a force multiplier when it comes to freeing up RAM in your brain.


3.  Do a weekly review of everything, or suffer the consequences


The preceding two lessons above are just two of several lists in the GTD system and the thing with all lists is this:  They’re only as good as they’re up to date.


Therefore, a weekly review is crucial to making the whole GTD system work.

Empty your collection buckets on Friday afternoon, for example, and then update all your lists. You’ll get a bird’s eye view and make sure everything is complete.


This is the part that makes the whole system stress-free and if you slack on it, you’ll pay the cognitive price.


Find the method that works for you and then execute it relentlessly


I share the opinion most people hold about Getting Things Done: it works great – but only if you rigorously stick to its rules. It just might be the best productivity system there is, but it’s also demanding and thus very easy to fall off the wagon.


If we adhere to the maxim of Occams razor then it really doesn’t matter which framework, tool or approach we use to better organise ourselves so long as it is made as simple and repeatable as possible.  Once it has been identified and inculcated then the key determining factor for success is how well we maintain a consistent and disciplined execution of the process.  We shall explore more on the topic of how to build personal discipline and consistency into the fabric of our lives though out T.H.E community.