Attention Management: What Is It, and Why Is It Important

We all have probably read a hundred few blogs and articles about time management by now, haven’t we? But we still find ourselves stuck in routines which seem to leave us with so little time. Maybe, it is time to think differently. Maybe, instead or along with time management, we need to start thinking about attention management. Read on.

The concept of attention management goes back to 1890 when psychologist William James talked about it in his book The Principles of Psychology vol 1. In today’s time we have Maura Thomas telling us all about attention management, what it means in our modern context, and how do we practice.

Given that many of us are working from home at certain times, with fifty tabs open, and a few hundred emails arriving every morning, attention management seems to be the thing to get a grasp about. Without further ado, let us delve into it!

The Definition And The Intention:

Maura Thomas writes in an article for HBR:

Attention management is the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximizing focus, so that you can unleash your genius. It’s about being intentional instead of reactive. It is the ability to recognize when your attention is being stolen (or has the potential to be stolen) and to instead keep it focused on the activities you choose. Rather than allowing distractions to derail you, you choose where you direct your attention at any given moment, based on an understanding of your priorities and goals.

That sounds so simple, right? But let us take an example to understand the intention of attention management more clearly. Mr. C had decided to finish that report he had been meaning to write since Monday. It was Wednesday today and he had decided to finish it, no matter what. Just as he was about to sit down and open the file, he heard the ping of his email. He instantly checked. He soon began to check other emails in the inbox as well.

The report just lies there in the corner and before he knew it, the report has been pushed to the next day, and he wonders where did the time go. This is an example of being reactive instead of intentional.

Although, being distracted by notifications is just one trivial example, it is a highly relatable and real one at that.

Most of the times, we understand our priorities and our goals. What we don’t realise is that tiny distractions can derail us from our track very easily.

Most of the times, we recognise when our attention is being stolen. What we don’t realise is that we have the choice to change our focus at our will, with a little effort. The question is, how?

Control Your Technology and Environment:

Take control of your notifications and devices! One simple strategy is to get rid of push notifications, or even notification sounds if possible. That sounds too unrealistic? You need all of that to keep track of emergencies? Then take control of your environment! Virtual people in the distance may need your attention asap, sure, but you may tell the real people in your environment to keep a distance if you know you are going to be working on a task that needs as much as of your undivided attention as possible. You can do things like making use of DND signs, going to a different part of your office/home.

 You can involve your colleagues and decide on a time during the day when everyone would work heads down and hands on their respective important tasks, for a fixed number of minutes or hours, no chatting, no breaks.

There is still something unbelievable about the fact that a simple notification distracts us, right? Maura Thomas recognises that and gives us some food for thought:

…the problem isn’t just that an email interrupts your work. It’s also the fact that being tethered to your email inbox conditions you to expect an interruption every few minutes, which chips away at your attention span. You then become so afraid of forgetting to do some small task — like sending an email or forwarding a document — that you start to do everything as soon as you’ve thought of it; but then you end up getting sucked into your overflowing inbox before you know it. Moreover, knowing that you have a catalogue of all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips — in terms of the internet on your smartphone — makes it difficult to be comfortable in a state of “I don’t know,” and hard to avoid the distracting temptation to “find out now.”

So, what do we do about that?

Control Your Thoughts and Behaviour:

This is where that little effort comes in. Know thyself, and recognise when you are likely to zone out. And practice catching yourself just as your mind begins to wander away. Maybe even keep a teeny tiny treat for yourself ready which you can use to motivate yourself to finish the designated task.

One very important thing to do as much as possible during these times of ‘deep work’ is to focus on only one task. Keep just one tab open, and direct all your attention into it. Next hour, you can work with a different task. But the point is to avoid multi-tasking as and when you can. We understand it is a highly unrealistic strategy to use these days, and that is why we slipped it in at the end. But there’s no harm in at least trying, right?

As you must have realised, understanding attention management and its strategies is ridiculously and deceivingly simple. We all know what we need to do. The key lies in recognising that what we are doing with these simple strategies is making space for our priorities.

Important Soft-Skills for A Remote-Worker

There has been a rise in remote working because of the ongoing pandemic. While many offices have started to open up, partially or fully, there are some offices which continue to function WFH. Everything is unpredictable, everyone must be prepared to change their working habits; ‘new normal’ is the new buzzword. But one thing is clear: remote working has gained more importance than ever before, and it is here to stay.

Let us take a look at some soft skills necessary to be an efficient remote worker. While these aren’t new skills, their importance has grown manifold over the past few months. Whether you are a hiring manager tasked with recruiting a remote worker, or an employee wondering how you can be a good remote worker, these qualities are something to look for and develop.

Self-Motivated and Self-Disciplined:

The most important skill when it comes to remote working. In an office environment one is under direct or indirect supervision. When it comes to remote working, that supervision is more or less absent. It becomes the job of the employee to get work done, by themselves. Sometimes, one may even need to set self-imposed deadlines and targets.

The freedom comes with a responsibility of being self-disciplined. The motivation has to come from within while working remotely.

This brings us to the next point.


With the freedom to self-impose deadlines and targets comes the responsibility to stay organised.

An employee must have that organised nature to make the necessary to-do or not-do-lists, to prioritise tasks. This organisation should also be used to recognise at what hours of the day they work the best and at which hours they tend to slack.

Being organised is thus an important skill necessary to sift through the barrage of emails and calls that populate everyone’s minds these days. This takes us to the next point.

Being Tech-savvy:

An in-office employee has the privilege of being there. They can simply knock and enter the room and communicate face to face. A remote worker might be able to communicate face to face through a video call, but they first need to be able to use a video calling app optimally, making use of the extensive features offered.

One needs to be an ideal sender and receiver (more about this later), and that goes hand in hand with the ability to use the tools of communication to their full purpose.

Being tech-savvy is now a necessary soft skill which hiring managers must look for in an employee, and one which employees must constantly upgrade.

The Balancing Act:

A remote worker often has to work independently in the sense that they don’t have the privilege to ask or clarify what might be considered as minor doubts or hiccups; an in-office employee has the freedom to simply ask around.

The ability to make important decisions independently, the ability to consult the right sources at the right time, the ability to decide which questions need a consultation in the first place are some necessary  skills associated with independence which a hiring manager should look for and a remote-working employee should build on.

But this is where it gets tricky. Read on.

A remote worker must be independent but also a good team player. A remote worker, in addition to their own team, may have to deal with multiple departments and teams at certain points. This where all the communication and organisation skills come into play. Co-ordinating projects, brainstorming ideas, managing and delegating tasks remotely not only  require great communication and organisation skills but also require one to be a good team player. Talk about balance! There is one more aspect which needs some balancing. Read on.

Communication Skills:

 An in-office employee may have only moderately well communication skills. Non-verbal cues, facial expressions and body language do the rest. But again, a remote worker doesn’t have that privilege of being there.

It thus becomes necessary that they know how to use their words and tone of voice exceptionally well. There will be a back and forth of calls of all kinds (video and audio), emails and messages. One must have the ability to not only frame all that communication in a clear, concise and coherent manner but also have receptive skills where they read the intended message from the sender correctly. This is what we mean when we say one must be an ideal receiver and an ideal sender. This is where the balance comes in.

Something to keep in mind is that although WFH demands great communication skills, some of us may not be too comfortable with the virtual world. It then becomes necessary to be ready to unhesitatingly ask for help. Consulting people who are more tech-savvy if one feels stuck, consulting seniors before drafting important communication with clients and being open to learning new things are some necessary steps to take. Isn’t this willingness to ask questions unhesitatingly also a part of being communicative?

As we must have realised, remote working is a lot about stepping out of the comfort zone on many levels.  We have come to realise the role of flexibility and adaptability as soft skills. But with these, being self-disciplined and well-organised, being communicative and tech-savvy, being a good team player with an independent mindset are some more necessary soft skills we need to have conversations about.

Optimizing Resources in the Pandemic

It is no secret that we are living under many constraints these days and there seems to be a crunch in our resources, which we took for granted earlier. Yes, there is some ‘inversing’ taking place here, for example, the long hours of commute have reduced. But the pros and cons are in a tight balance.

However, this has also led us to sort of develop a third eye of sorts: we are now seeing everything with a different perspective. We are finding ideas and opportunities at the most unlikely of places. In other words, we have learned a remarkable thing: we have understood the value of our resources and we are using them optimally, to their maximum potential. This is something which might not have been achieved in a situation of abundance.

With this in mind, let us jump into the lessons we have learnt about making the best possible use of our resources!

Overturning the Lack of Abundance:

When we have limited resources, our attitude changes from what it is when we are working in abundance. We cease to take things for granted, and we strive to make the best use of what is available.

Take for example how all those people who don’t have a study or a proper work area in their homes have come up with ideas to create a makeshift workspace, making the best possible use of resources they have at hand.  People have been converting their dining tables into office desks, or making use of old unused spaces in their homes in innovative ways.

Or take for example the use of internet. Instead of procrastinating and endless scrolling, people are making sure they use their home internets at the best of times when the speed is optimal.

In an abundant situation, there was a high possibility that we often wasted resources, and took them for granted, resulting in reduced efficiency. This newfound attitude of making the best use of the available resources remains beneficial, whether someone is working from home or has returned to the office.

No Decision Fatigue:

‘Decision fatigue’, a term used in psychology, is when the quality of decisions is deteriorated because of spending too much time to reach a decision. Contrary to expectations, a long session spent on pondering over each and every minute detail can actually result in poor decision making.

Because of limited choices and options, whether of time or resources, we now have a limited number of strategies to choose from, leading to a relatively quick process of decision making. In other words, we aren’t spoilt by choices, leading to less over-thinking over the minutiae and more action-taking keeping the big picture in mind.

Expectations and Creativity:

In an abundant situation, our expectations would skyrocket; we wanted a project to only be a certain way- nothing less; we wanted to reach that target no matter what. Such an attitude often led to high levels of mental and physical stress.

Now that we have limited resources, we keep our expectations realistic. We work keeping the limitations in mind. There is a huge shift in our attitude, leading to lower levels of stress, and a much calmer strategizing: instead of focusing on being the best ever, we focus on making use of the best possibilities. Lack of resources has forced us to be creative.

And now that we know where to limit our expectations, our minds are suddenly free from the drive for perfectionism, and we are being able to harmonise work life and home life, something we didn’t think was possible!

As we can see, we have learned to value our resources, and we have started to work productively even with the various types of constraints, be it those of time, resources, and options. We are steering clear of sluggishness and getting a push. We are keeping our expectations realistic and not falling into harmful competitiveness. We are now seeing possibilities.

How Useful Is A Not-To-Do List?

To be or not to be that is the question but to do, or not to do, is also a question which needs our attention. We have all come across articles and blogs telling us about to-do lists, where we prioritise, plan and mark the task from urgent to not so urgent. If you have a habit of maintaining a to-do list, you probably know the wonderful feeling you get when you put a tick-mark on an accomplished task. To-do lists have their place. But did you know, not-to-do lists could be equally helpful?

Many experts on strategy and planning often talk of a ‘negative’ list’; a list that tells us what should be avoided. Think about it. Sometimes, we might not be sure what we want to do but we are pretty sure about the kind of situation we would like to avoid. For example, we often hear ourselves saying things like:

  • ‘Do not forget to call that client today.’
  • ‘Do not to bring up an issue that doesn’t add to the agenda of this meeting’
  • ‘Do not forget to double check the data.’

Sometimes, clear and specific not-to-do list can lead to a better understanding of the need of the moment, rather than a vague to-do list.

For the sake of examples though, let us take a look at some more general and universal tasks which could be added in the not-to-do list. Doing those tasks have known to make people regret some of their decisions in life.

Do Not be Worried What Others Might Think:

Sounds so simple, right? But have we all not worried at some point what others might say about our decisions and choices? Have we not been scared of what people might think of us?

Simply keeping in mind to not worry about other people’s (often unsolicited) opinions could potentially help us make decisions which are about us, and not others.

Do Not be Scared to Take Risks:

We all have thought of certain things we want to do, and have backed away at the last moment only to look back years later, and thought that maybe  we should have taken that risk because that was the time. It doesn’t matter whether you look back at your twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or even sixty year old self. There is no age when we haven’t looked back and regretted some of our decisions.

It is important we add this to our not-to-do list to be completely free from all the what ifs and buts.

Do Not Drag On a Bad Job For too Long:

It is important to not run away from a momentarily tough situation. We have talked of strategic quitting in the past. A temporary situation is not a good enough reason to quit.

But it is equally important to not drag on a job that is holding you back from achieving your long term plans and dreams. It is necessary we add this to our not-to-do list so we don’t end up feeling like we wasted our potential.

Do Not Save the Expression ‘For Later’:

Haven’t we all had to face a situation where we needed people to be there for us? Whether it is a difficult family crisis, or a professional crisis, expressing empathy, kindness, offering a few healing words, taking actions which we know will help the other person to cope should not be saved for later, for the ‘right time.’

Haven’t we had loved ones suddenly depart, and felt we should have mended that relation before it was too late? Why push mending something broken to ‘later’ when it can be mended ‘now’?

Keeping this in our not-to-do list will ensure we know there is no ‘wrong time’ to express kindness in actions and words.

Do Not Think It’s Too Late to Pursue Higher Studies:

Learning, knowledge, study have no age bar. If circumstances made you give up on studies, temporarily, it doesn’t mean you have to give up on them permanently.

It is necessary we don’t let socially constructed conventions about age hinder us from pursuing anything which could add to our skill- and knowledge- set, helping us grow as a professional, or simply something which could help us grow as a person.

It is important we add this to our not-to-do list, so we remember to never stop learning.

These are just a few examples of a not-to-do list. You could make your own specific ones, or just keep a general list to help you steer clear of some preconceived and outdated notions. Either way, it is not always wrong to think in terms of ‘negatives’. Sometimes, the negative is in fact a positive!

And finally, the most important item to add to any not-to-do list these days:-

Do not be casual while taking precautions in the ‘new normal’!

 Do not take the safety directives lightly. Do not venture out without wearing a mask, do not be lazy about washing your hands, do not take the social distancing rules lightly, do not forget to sanitise the goods you buy, and do not be afraid to put your health first. Adding all this to our not-do-list will ensure we realise our responsibilities.

We Are in a VUCA Situation And the Good News Is We Are Adapting Pretty Well!

VUCA situation, VUCA

Phrases like “uncertain times”, “unprecedented situation”, “unknown to everyone” have been making rounds all over the world due to the ongoing pandemic crisis. One can say that we are living in a VUCA situation.

Let us go straight into the details of what the acronym stands for. VUCA is:

Volatile: When a situation is volatile, it is susceptible to rapid change(s) and unpredictable events. Take for example the present situation where we were forced to start working with a different methodology, all within a matter of few days.

Uncertain: When a situation is uncertain, there is not only an uncertainty about the future but more often than not, we also don’t have as clear an idea about what is happening even at present. We go on as things happen. Long term planning seems next to impossible. Need we say more?

Complex: A complex situation brings in a whole lot of interconnected factors which lead to various results and implications.

Again, taking from the present situation, we will realise how financial, economic, administrative factors, coupled with the decisions taken by government bodies, health systems paint a very complex picture of what is going on.

Ambiguous: An ambiguous situation is not clear. It is replete with ‘maybe’, ‘whether’, ‘just in case’, ‘until further instructions’.

The very first usage can be traced back to the United States Army War College to describe the situation during the Cold War. According to MindTools, VUCA, and its usage in business and corporate culture can be traced back to when Bob Johansen used it in his book ‘Leaders Make Future‘, in 2009,  while talking about the unpredictable and turbulent forces which can affect businesses and organisations.

Who knew that decades after its first known usage, this acronym would perfectly describe a situation we are in?

But hang on.

It is very encouraging to note that although a VUCA situation is something we are facing right now, it is also something which we have managed to combat quite well.

Although, the very quality of being a VUCA situation means that it will come when we least expect it, so “preparing” for it might sound paradoxical. But aren’t we in such a situation already? So, how does one deal with a VUCA situation according to the book and what is so encouraging about our response to it?

Countering By the Book:

An article by MindTools provides a short and comprehensive guide about countering it:

How To Counter Volatility?

Vision. Long term plans might go for a toss, but there is always space for short term planning. “Vision” doesn’t always mean thinking five, ten, years ahead. It also means charting out a plan that might work well in the next two, three days, a plan which lays out a ‘vision’ about how teams and team members should interact to meet those short term goals, and what they should do if plan A doesn’t work out due to volatility. One can counter volatility with a flexible, short term vision. It involves having a vision of plan B, C, D and so on, no matter how short term.

How to Counter Uncertainty?

Understanding. Sometimes, dwelling on the very fact that the situation is uncertain stops us from trying to get a deeper understanding of the situation itself. By trying to understand the situation in depth, one can get some idea about the possible pros and cons, the possible results, the possible methods one would need to adopt. In short, understanding gives a sense of a wider perspective. Just because it is impossible to get a certain answer doesn’t mean we can’t gain clarity about the possibilities.

How to Counter Complexity?

Clarity. Similar to how understanding about uncertainty helps in trying to think of possibilities, being clear about the complexity of the situation can help to work calmly. Defining the complexity, and its implications to the team members can help see the situation as something which one has to figure out rather than a situation one has been thrust into. Communicating the complexity clearly helps us see the situation as a mathematics riddle to be solved with collaboration and adaptability, making it much less daunting. It involves communicating clearly (and hence bringing it within the grasp of everyone) how factor A might lead to factor B, which might lead to factor D through some strange workings of factor C.

How to Counter Ambiguity?

Agility. So what the situation is ambiguous? We can counter it with our own adaptability and flexibility. An attitude which is open to change, willing to learn new skills and willing to step beyond one’s role goes a long way in changing the way we perceive ambiguity.

Our Response:

When we think of it, many organisations have already in their own ways countered this VUCA situation, especially when some restrictions are being lifted.

It is Vision which has led many an organisation to think of ideas to work in shifts, it is Understanding that things are uncertain that has led people to adapt to the new habits, it is Clarity which has made us prepared about the fact that this is the “new normal”  and most importantly, it is Agility and flexibility which has kept us all working in spite of everything.

 Isn’t this a much needed dose of encouragement we all needed? That we are actually doing our best to combat these times?