Your attention is limited and valuable. You need less information. You need good filters
Your life is busy. Work/life balance is a challenge. You feel like you’re spreading yourself so thin that you’re starting to disappear.
Most of us feel that way. But not all of us. The most organized people don’t.
As NYT bestselling author and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains, the VIP’s he’s met don’t seem scattered and frantic.
They’re calm, cool and “in the moment”, not juggling nine things and worried about being done by 7PM.
It’s not hard to figure out why: they have help — aides and assistants to take care of these things so the VIP can be “in the moment.”
In the course of my work as a scientific researcher, I’ve had the chance to meet governors, cabinet members, music celebrities, and the heads of Fortune 500 companies. Their skills and accomplishments vary, but as a group, one thing is remarkably constant. I’ve repeatedly been struck by how liberating it is for them not to have to worry about whether there is someplace else they need to be, or someone else they need to be talking to. They take their time, make eye contact, relax, and are really there with whomever they’re talking to. They don’t have to worry if there is someone more important they should be talking to at that moment because their staff— their external attentional filters— have already determined for them that this is the best way they should be using their time.
Must be nice since you and I have to multitask and cut things short to try and get everything done, stressing the whole time.
But here’s the thing: You can be like that too. And it doesn’t require a staff of 10.
So who is your assistant? You are. Then who’s the VIP? You are. (Yes, I am actively encouraging you to develop a split personality.)
With enough planning ahead of time, you can make sure you’re as calm and organized as the President of the United States.
(For more on what the most productive people do, click here.)
We just need to get a few systems in place ahead of time. What’s the first step?
1) The VIP’s Brain Is Empty. And That’s A Good Thing.
The President of the United States is not desperately trying to remember his to-do list.
He has outsourced to his staff all the things that come next so he can focus 100% on what’s in front of him.
No, you don’t have a group of aides but there’s still a key principle you can use: Get it out of your head.
Shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world… Writing them down gets them out of your head, clearing your brain of the clutter that is interfering with being able to focus on what you want to focus on.
Everything you’re worried about, every to-do, every concern gets written down in one place.
One. Not scattered across a notepad at home, your iPad in the office, your email inbox, sticky notes on your monitor, and your unreliable memory.
That scattering makes you wonder if you’ve forgotten something — and research shows it produces anxiety.
So get it out of your head and on one list. Afterwards, Getting Things Done author David Allen says break it up into 4 categories:
- Do it
- Delegate it
- Defer it
- Drop it
Once you have those 4 lists you know what you actually need to do and it’s all in one place. Just having that list is a big step toward VIP cool.
Why does this work? There’s some neuroscience behind it. Writing things down deactivates “rehearsal loops.”
When we have something on our minds that is important— especially a To Do item— we’re afraid we’ll forget it, so our brain rehearses it, tossing it around and around in circles in something that cognitive psychologists actually refer to as the rehearsal loop, a network of brain regions that ties together the frontal cortex just behind your eyeballs and the hippocampus in the center of your brain… The problem is that it works too well, keeping items in rehearsal until we attend to them. Writing them down gives both implicit and explicit permission to the rehearsal loop to let them go, to relax its neural circuits so that we can focus on something else.
(For more on how the great geniuses of history leverage notebooks, click here.)
So you got all the to-do’s out of your brain and onto a list. You know what can be delegated, deferred and dropped — and what you actually need to do.
Now how do you get through the day like a calm VIP?
2) “Mr. President, Your Next Meeting Is About To Begin”
The President of the United States doesn’t check his watch. He’s scheduled down to the minute and aides tell him when it’s time to go.
You may not have assistants but any smartphone has alarms and reminders.
Time management also requires structuring your future with reminders. That is, one of the secrets to managing time in the present is to anticipate future needs so that you’re not left scrambling and playing catch-up all the time.
Ironically, your phone probably interrupts you with unimportant texts, emails, and status updates — but not about the key priorities for your day.
Few of us have our calendar so organized ahead of time that we can let it dictate all our actions moment to moment.
What’s the key? Alarms don’t work with to-do lists.
As Cal Newport recommends, assign every to-do a block of time on your calendar. Then you can gauge how much you can actually get done:
Scheduling forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take. Now that you look at the whole picture you’re able to get something productive out of every free hour you have in your workday. You not only squeeze more work in but you’re able to put work into places where you can do it best.
You’re less likely to procrastinate when an activity has an assigned block of time, because the decision was already made.
And once it has a time block, you can be the VIP. Alarms allow your mind to be calm knowing you’ll be reminded about the next thing.
(For more on the schedule successful people follow every day, click here.)
I know what some of you are thinking: But I get interrupted. I get distracted.
But there’s a way to deal with interruptions — even if you don’t have a Secret Service detail to keep people out of your office.
3) Set Up Filters
Every morning the President gets a top secret document with everything he needs to know from the agencies beneath him.
What’s key isn’t what the document contains, it’s what it doesn’t contain: 50 status updates, 100 tweets, 10 cat pictures and 1000 unimportant emails.
He can focus on what matters because he isn’t distracted by what doesn’t. Meanwhile, you probably feel overwhelmed by information.
Today, our attentional filters easily become overwhelmed. Successful people— or people who can afford it— employ layers of people whose job it is to narrow the attentional filter. That is, corporate heads, political leaders, spoiled movie stars, and others whose time and attention are especially valuable have a staff of people around them who are effectively extensions of their own brains, replicating and refining the functions of the prefrontal cortex’s attentional filter.
“I have information overload!”, you scream. But as technology visionary Clay Shirky says, “It’s not information overload; it’s filter failure.”
Your attention is limited and valuable. You need less information. You need good filters.
Our brains do have the ability to process the information we take in, but at a cost: We can have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired. Neurons are living cells with a metabolism; they need oxygen and glucose to survive and when they’ve been working hard, we experience fatigue…
A good low-tech solution is to hide for part of the day. I’m as serious as a heart attack. Go where people cannot reach you and get solid work done.
That’s not an option for everyone. I get it. No problem. But people who feel technology has left them overloaded with information are using it wrong.
Use technology like a DVR to time-shift your communications. People should reach you when you want them to, not when they want to.
Handle all communications in specified “batches“: a set time when you check email, voicemail, etc.
Some people say, “I can’t do that.” But you probably can do it more than you think, especially early and late in the day.
Maybe your boss wants you ridiculously responsive. Fine. Set up an email filter so only the boss’s emails get through immediately.
…you can set up e-mail filters in most e-mail programs and phones, designating certain people whose mail you want to get through to you right away, while other mail just accumulates in your inbox until you have time to deal with it. And for people who really can’t be away from e-mail, another effective trick is to set up a special, private e-mail account and give that address only to those few people who need to be able to reach you right away, and check your other accounts only at designated times.
(For more on how to achieve work/life balance, click here.)
So you’ve got reminders and filters and you’re not running around worried anymore.
But when you sit down to work you realize there is still just too much to do. How can you keep calm when there are so many decisions to make?
4) The Incredible Power of “Good Enough”
The President doesn’t make little decisions. The thousands of people working under him handle those so only the big stuff bubbles up to his agenda.
But given you don’t have thousands of people working under you (or maybe any for that matter) you handle every decision, business and personal.
As I’ve said before, “You can do anything once you stop trying to do everything.” Be a perfectionist about it all and you’ll have a nervous breakdown.
Save your limited decision-making power for the things that matter. Everything else should be “satisficed.”
What is satisficing? It’s the art of quickly picking the option that is “good enough.” And research shows it’s the path to productivity — and happiness.
Recent research in social psychology has shown that happy people are not people who have more; rather, they are people who are happy with what they already have. Happy people engage in satisficing all of the time, even if they don’t know it. Warren Buffett can be seen as embracing satisficing to an extreme— one of the richest men in the world, he lives in Omaha, a block from the highway, in the same modest home he has lived in for fifty years… But Buffett does not satisfice with his investment strategies; satisficing is a tool for not wasting time on things that are not your highest priority. For your high-priority endeavors, the old-fashioned pursuit of excellence remains the right strategy.
Will this decision result in you losing your job? No? Then opt for the “good enough” solution and focus on what matters most.
(For more on what the most successful people all have in common, click here.)
Your boss’s priorities change midday. More stuff keeps getting added to your list. How can this not throw a monkeywrench into your well-laid plan?
5) “Mr. President, There’s Been A Change…”
When changes come up for the Commander-in-Chief he shifts seamlessly because his aides have already revised the day’s plans. So he stays calm.
You can stay cool too, but it requires a little bit more effort. New things will come in, priorities will change and you need to process and adapt.
Always have your notebook ready to capture new ideas and to-do’s.
And throughout the day you need moments of triage and “active sorting” where you restructure the list from your big brain dump.
“Your brain needs to engage on some consistent basis with all of your commitments and activities,” Allen says. “You must be assured that you are doing what you need to be doing, and that it’s OK to be not doing what you’re not doing. If it’s on your mind, then your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind…” That trusted system is to write it down.
Once you update your list, apply the Eisenhower Matrix.
When you know which category everything fits into, you can attack the list in a prioritized way.
(For more on how Navy SEALs, Astronauts and Samurai make good decisions, click here.)
Okay, you are master of your schedule, your mind is empty and you’re ready to focus… Now what?
6) Have A “War Room”
Ever seen a picture of the President’s desk? Does it have piles of papers and 1000 random post-its? No.
Research shows a desk that looks like the aftermath of a natural disaster saps your ability to concentrate.
You don’t need to be a neat-freak but when it’s time for you to stop planning and be the VIP, have a separate work area designed for focus.
One way to exploit the hippocampus’s natural style of memory storage is to create different work spaces for the different kinds of work we do. But we use the same computer screen for balancing our checkbook, responding to e-mails from our boss, making online purchases, watching videos of cats playing the piano, storing photos of our loved ones, listening to our favorite music, paying bills, and reading the daily news. It’s no wonder we can’t remember everything— the brain simply wasn’t designed to have so much information in one place… The neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks goes one further: If you’re working on two completely separate projects, dedicate one desk or table or section of the house for each. Just stepping into a different space hits the reset button on your brain and allows for more productive and creative thinking.
According to productivity guru Tim Ferriss, focus is just the product of removing distractions.
So you want your VIP work area to have what the VIP needs. And nothing else.
A germane finding in cognitive psychology for gaining that control is to make visible the things you need regularly, and hide things that you don’t.
I can hear the whining already: But I don’t have two offices! I barely have one!
This isn’t about real estate, it’s about mental space. Your desk can be where you plan, but the VIP works on the couch.
Or your desktop computer is for preparation, but the VIP works on your iPad (which deliberately lacks apps for Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
When it’s time for VIP work you want everything you need to get the job done — and nothing else.
Your immediate environment should make what you need to do easy and what you don’t need to do hard.
(For more tricks successful people use to make themselves great, click here.)
So how do we pull all this together?
The steps to being as organized and calm as the Commander-in-Chief:
- Get your to-do’s out of your head and onto one document.
- Lock in your calendar and set alarms so you don’t need to think about what’s next.
- Use “batching” and filters so you only get the info you need when you need it.
- Opt for “good enough” on the little decisions so you can focus on the big ones.
- Regularly capture, triage and prioritize new items.
- Have a “War Room” that contains what you need — and nothing else.
You used to need a secretary vigilantly monitoring the phone all day… then came answering machines and voicemail.
Technology has come a long way since then and with some planning you can use it to keep your cool and accomplish great things.
It’s hard at first. And, yes, you’ll stumble. You’ll need to tweak and customize. But with time you’ll evolve a personal system that works.
And you’ll learn the lesson that every VIP knows:
The trickiest thing to learn to manage is yourself. But once you can handle that, you can handle anything.
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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