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Forget Time Management. Manage Attention Instead.

Forget Time Management. Manage Attention Instead.

Time management tools are fun and all. But I think part of their allure is that they make it seem like, with enough “hacks” and willpower we can truly “make” more time.

I’ve got some hard news. No matter your hack or willpower status, we all still have 24 hours in the day.

In our quest to manage time something gets lost. When we are always trying to pack more, more, more into our 24 hours, we can start to spend time “efficiently” but spend our attention very poorly.

We must remember that focusing our attention focused on the parts of life that matter most to us is never, ever, ever wasted time. Even if that means checking less off our to-do list.

I started Create Balance because I have learned that living a balanced life is about maximizing time and energy on the things that matter most and minimizing time and energy on the rest.

And part of that means learning how to shift our attention to both the positive parts of life, and the present that we are experiencing right now.

Here are a few strategies that help me (and moms and dads everywhere) shift attention to what matters most, no matter how hectic the days and weeks get.

How to Shift Attention to the POSITIVE

Here is a fascinating finding from Winifred Gallegher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life:

    “Based on objective lab tests that measure vision, Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shows that paying attention to positive emotions literally expands your world, while focusing on negative feelings shrink it – a fact that has important implications for your daily experience.” (pg. 35)

To be clear, focusing on the positive moments of life doesn’t mean ignoring reality or problems. But it does mean actively paying attention to what is good, enjoyable, or valued even when other parts of your reality are less appealing.

Two Simple Strategies to Shift Attention to the POSITIVE:

    #1: Have a gratitude journal. The only guidelines are that you write down 1-3 things you are grateful for every day. You can do it in the morning or at night. You can do it on your phone, in a notebook, or in a fancy journal. This routine trains your brain to start noticing (i.e. “giving attention to”) the positive things of life, which has effects beyond the journal.
    #2: Put a deposit down for your “remembering self.” In Rapt, Gallegher explains that we have two versions of our “selves:” the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing-self experiences the moment you are in, but the remembering-self is focused on the thoughts and emotions of the experience. So, when we “remember” an event our memory is completely tied up in the emotions of the experiences instead of the objective event. When you are choosing what to pay attention to at any given moment, you are also contributing to how your remembering-self will fit that moment into the narrative of your life.
    When I’m choosing what to do, or how to think about what I’m doing, I sometimes tell myself “It’s time to put a deposit down for my remembering self.” Putting a deposit down for your remembering-self just means that you focus intently on the positives of the moment. But you do it because you know you are controlling how your remembering-self will fit that moment into your life-narrative.
    No one makes every choice this way. But this is a useful strategy for when you are feeling like you aren’t spending enough time and attention on your essential values. Putting a deposit down on your remembering-self means you are creating memories related to your essential values intentionally, and in real-time.

How to Shift Attention to the PRESENT

Mindfulness is a term that has become quite popular. There is a mystical quality to it when we refer to mindful meditation or discuss the spiritual aspects of transcendent mindfulness. But my favorite definition of mindfulness is the very practical one from Jon Kabat-Zinn. He says “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Think about that. At its essence, mindfulness means paying attention to the NOW.

You and I know that is easier said than done. There is always something from our past to remember and rethink and something in our future to plan. But learning to pay more attention to the present doesn’t require going off to a retreat or meditating for 30 minutes a day. It just means shifting your attention.

Two Simple Strategies to Shift Attention to the PRESENT:

    #1: Put all electronics away.
    This might seem obvious, but how many of us have thought “I’ll just keep my phone in my pocket” only to find ourselves pulling it out to check a text, and then the next minute finding ourselves on Facebook. We don’t have to be unplugged our whole life or our whole day. But, it’s hard to be mindful with some of the tedium of playing with children, or the effort of deep work when there is a wealth of fun and adult connection right at our fingertips. When you want to be present and mindful put the electronics in another room. You will be able to hear a phone call if you need to. But you will also be able to focus your attention what is present.
    #2: Set a time(r).
    As you train your brain to focus on the present, it’s helpful to have a block of time you are focused on. Few of us are fully present all the time. We do think about the past and the future at various points. But if you want to try and be more present, start by choosing a time, setting a timer, and paying active attention to the moment in front of you that is related to your essential values.
    Here is one quick example: One of the struggles I’ve had as a parent is feeling like some of the tedious parts of parenting will never end. How many times will we put the same puzzle together? How many times do I have to sing “Twinkle twinkle” with the same funny voice (well, I thought it was funny the first time – but not the tenth time). When it feels like these times with my children, as joyful as they can be, are going to stretch for hours on end, it’s helpful to set a time limit. I give myself that permission to take a break in 15, 30, or 45 minutes, either by letting my child play by themselves, letting my mind wander, or even checking Facebook. If I know that I have an hour to truly be present with my child before we have to get ready for the next activity, or before I’m going to check my Twitter feed, I can really be mindful and give my child my attention for that hour. But if the whole afternoon looms forward with no time for my own self-care or interests in sight, mindfulness becomes harder to achieve.

Creating a Balanced Life isn’t about doing more or being perfect. Creating a Balanced life is all about focusing our precious time, energy, and attention on the parts of our personal, professional, and parenting lives that matter most

Next thing you think you have a time-management struggle, take some time to think about how you can shift your attention before you figure out how to get “more” done. It’s a good reminder of how rich moments of focused attention can be, even in a busy working parent life.

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