James Clear said “Arguably the most important skill is controlling your attention. This goes beyond merely avoiding distractions. The deeper skill is finding the highest and best use for your time, given what is important to you. More than anything else, controlling your attention is about being able to figure out what you should be working on and identifying what truly moves the needle.” This describes Attention Management so perfectly. 

Have you noticed how days seem to get busier and busier.  More and more expectations, information, demands and challenges clamour for our attention.  By the end of the working day, most of us are either exhausted or operating on an adrenalin and overwhelm-based fever pitch.  Attention has become a precious commodity.

Leaders who are responsible for achieving results need to prioritise building attention management skills.  The ability to identify the important tasks, delegate and manage delivery of these tasks has become more important than ever.  As is the ability to recognise that what you are focussing on is not the priority, any longer.  The art of being flexible and agile enough to make the change is part of attention management. 

As a self-confessed control freak, I admit that changing my direction based on new information is incredibly difficult.  I know how long it takes me to stop, recalibrate and then get back into top speed doing with a difference.  The “interruption” stops my flow and interferes with the very clear end goal I have in mind.  What I am noticing is that the process of “pause, review and re-engage” is more and more important.  As additional information is being presented to us, the gifts of making changes enroute allows us to deliver an even better outcome. 

On the same count, when I am too distracted and flexible, I notice how I struggle to get anything delivered.  I’m splitting my attention across multiple focusses (emails, WhatsApp’s, writing proposals etc etc) and nothing is being completed properly.  At the end of the day, I feel like I was very busy but have achieved nothing. 

Attention management is the balance between these two.

The Attention Management Matrix is a powerful tool that assists us to pay attention to the right areas.  It also guides us on what to do with the items not at the top of our priority list. 

This matrix categorizes tasks into four quadrants:

  1. Urgent and Important (Do First): Tasks that need immediate attention, such as pressing deadlines and crucial client meetings.
  2. Important, Not Urgent (Schedule): Important tasks that contribute to long-term goals, like strategic planning and skill development. Schedule these to ensure they receive proper attention.
  3. Urgent, Not Important (Delegate): Tasks that are urgent but don’t require your expertise, such as administrative work. Delegate these to capable team members.
  4. Not Urgent, Not Important (Eliminate): Distractions like unnecessary meetings or excessive social media use. Eliminate or minimize these to preserve focus for vital tasks.

I am sure you can deduct how the matrix works but for those of us that want to check we are doing it “right”, here is the basic guide on how to use the tool:

  1. Identify Tasks: List all your tasks and place them into the appropriate quadrant.
  2. Prioritize: Focus on tasks in the ‘Urgent and Important’ quadrant first. Then, schedule ‘Important, Not Urgent’ tasks, delegate ‘Urgent, Not Important’ activities, and find ways to “get rid of” or “hand back” tasks in the ‘Not Urgent, Not Important’ quadrant.
  3. Review and Adapt: Regularly reassess your tasks and adjust where they fit on the matrix.  Priorities shift.

If attention management is not about doing more in less time but doing the right things at the right time, there is an increased responsibility for leaders to build this skill in our teams.  Staff must strengthen their critical thinking and creativity skills to be able to make the difficult decision around prioritisation and innovatively manage their attention to achieve best results.  They also need to have strong social intelligence to confirm and receive feedback on the attention management decisions they are making.  Staff that are effective at attention management increase their value exponentially.  They become fit at making decisions, understanding their environments, and working effectively to deliver what is important. 

As our world becomes more information and data rich and demands on our time, expertise and energy increase, the human capability to deduct importance, prioritise and deliver is highlighted.  The human preference for the predictable will be challenged until managing unpredictability and being agile are the norm.  These are the survival skills that have supported businesses and businesspeople to succeed, recognise opportunities and thrive in our changing world.

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