Time vs. Attention vs. Priorities

Post from the Productivity category

Time Good heavens! Looks like I won’t have time to watch Spongebob Squarepants today!

How many times have you heard these words in the last two weeks? “I don’t have time for this”. Or even worse: “I didn’t call you because I couldn’t find time for it”.

Seriously? You did not find a minute and a half in the 11520 minutes your week has to do a phone call? My day has got 24 hours, and so has yours.

I read this article by Jason Fried recently, where he made some good points about the difference between time and attention. Long story short, the sentence “I don’t have time for this” more often than not means “Even if I find the time for it, I do not have the required attention to deal with this”.

While I think he’s a hundred percent right about it, the article feels somehow incomplete. The author doesn’t deal with another dimension of the problem: priorities.

Time vs. Attention

The rapid evolution of our information-based society is stealing our attention, but we are simply too busy to even notice. Or worse: we notice, but we don’t find this worthy of our attention.

The difference between finding time to do something and having attention to do something is the amount of grey matter we’re going to use while dealing with it.

We can find time to take out the trash every night or to perform mechanical tasks at the end of the day. However, we might not have the required attention to focus on choosing the right words for the followup email you’re supposed to send at the end of the day, or to proofread your next blog entry before going to bed.

It appears to me, that when we’re dealing with unexpected tasks that are flooding our daily agenda, we should decide whether they require time or attention.

Tasks requiring attention (thus, concentration, planning, creativity, decision-making, etc.) should be placed at the beginning of the day or delegated to trustworthy people — if possible.

Tasks requiring time (thus, none of the above) should be placed at the end of the day or else — when possible — outsourced. Your time is usually too valuable to deal with such chores.

Enter Priorities

Jason Fried didn’t make clear how does he tell a task that requires time from one that requires attention instead.

My guess is priorities.

I once read this story: Imagine your job is really exhausting, even physically. After a ten hours shift, you decide to go to the gym, because that helps you dealing with stress.

On your way back home, a friend calls you to go for a walk. You politely decline the invite, as you’re too tired. A minute after, you receive a second call alerting you that your house is on fire.

I can bet a thousand dollars you’d run like you’ve never run before.

Got the point? If that intern’s email were higher on his priorities list, he would have dealt with it. Instead, it got pushed back many times. Jason probably took some days off from work this summer, like pretty much everybody, but still he did not reply to the email.

It’s not wrong. It’s called priorities.

Priorities-driven decisions

I too fell in the trap of considering myself too busy to do anything. Some days I would not go out for drinks, meet family, or go to the gym because I had too much stuff to do.

Because of a ligaments injury I had back in May, I haven’t been able to go running as much as I used to, and combined with an excess of work, I put on about 10kg in less than three months. I also eat a lot.

Did I not have the time to eat less or work out differently? Most likely. Did I have the attention? Don’t know. But one thing is clear: fitness dropped in my priorities list.

So I decided to change my priorities: Work would still be up there, but fitness should definitely win over other lesser priorities.

To prove myself that there’s always time to squeeze something else in your packed agenda, I joined the #200DaysOf8fit challenge. 8fit is a fitness app that launched this challenge internally, but decided to open it up as it gained followers. The challenge consists in working out 200 days in a row.

I made this a priority. Therefore I will decline offers to go for drinks or my own temptations to slack off at home if that interferes with my daily workout.

To sum up

  • In order to be more productive, you should learn how to prioritise tasks.
  • Once they are ordered, tackle first the attention-consuming tasks early in the day. The Eisenhower matrix works wonders for me.
  • Leave tasks that require time but no attention for the end of the day. If nobody else can do them but you, deal with them. Else, delegate/outsource/eliminate that task.

Boom! How does your agenda look like now? Have more time to do stuff?

Wrong: your day has still got 24 hours. Exactly the same amount of time before you read this post. You just learnt how to use it wisely.