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Control your attention, free up your time

Nancy Fouts

You must control your attention in order to control your life, writes Maura Thomas for Harvard Business Review.

In his book The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, the celebrated American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

In 1890, there were distractions, of course there were, but it was nothing like 2018. The telephone was new technology to James and his contemporaries. Now, post-digital revolution and the advent of the internet we are connected 24-7. The distractions are endless.

If you spend your working day reading and responding to emails, then reading and responding to emails becomes your working experience – it becomes your working life.

Do you want reading and responding to emails to become your life? No, of course you don’t. So it is time to embrace attention management: “the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximising focus, so that you can unleash your genius”.

Maura Thomas is an expert on productivity, attention management and work/life balance. Here are her four steps to controlling your attention:


1) Control your technology. You are the master, technology is the slave. When you need to focus, turn off your email, phone and push notifications.

2) Control your environment. Use headphones or a “do not disturb” sign to prevent interruptions during periods of of focus. If these solutions don’t work, move to a quiet part of the office or work outside the office. Alternatively, sit down with your colleagues to designate a “no distractions” day.


3) Control your behaviour. Our brains are conditioned to expect regular emails and calls, so you will have to be proactive if you want to take back control from the machines. During your periods of focus, when your email, phone and notifications are off, practise “single-tasking”, concentrating on one task at a time until it is complete.

Take regular breaks from your computer, and try to unplug completely from technology for an hour or more per day. Start with 15 minutes and work toward 90 minutes.

4) Control your thoughts. Minds like to wander but you must learn to rein yours in when you are trying to focus on a specific task. Don’t be forceful. If you notice your mind has moved away from the task at hand, gently guide it back. Jot down any ideas or topics you want to Google on a pad and come back to them later.


Attention management is not easy. It will take time, but it is worth it. “The ultimate result is the ability to create a life of choice, around things that are important to you,” writes Thomas. “It’s more than just exercising focus. It’s about taking back control over your time and your priorities.”