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How to Be a Productivity Ninja: Attention management

Boss-mode vs worker-mode

Knowledge workers usually have to play 2 roles at the same time - the boss and the worker: They have to choose what their work is (boss-mode) and they have to do the actual work (work-mode), for example.

This situation has the potential to create conflict and lead to indecision about which role should have their attention at different times of the day.

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    How to Be a Productivity Ninja: Attention management

    How to Be a Productivity Ninja: Attention management


    Key Ideas

    Boss-mode vs worker-mode

    Knowledge workers usually have to play 2 roles at the same time - the boss and the worker: They have to choose what their work is (boss-mode) and they have to do the actual work (work-mode), for example.

    This situation has the potential to create conflict and lead to indecision about which role should have their attention at different times of the day.

      Limited attention

      Your attention is a limited resource and you have to be careful where you are spending it.
      If you choose to give away 80 percent of your attention to meetings, you will have 20 percent of your attention just for dealing with a few emails feeling overwhelmed.

      Levels of attention

      • Proactive attention: you are fully focused and prepared for your most important decisions/ most complex tasks.
      • Active attention: you're plugged in, but also easily distracted.
      • Inactive attention: you're likely to really struggle with complex or difficult tasks.

      Schedule your work

      ... based on your attention level.
      Save difficult and important task for when your attention level is proactive, leave the intense but easier stuff for those active attention times, and try to save up the easy or dull stuff for when you're capable of little else.

      Fixes for your attention management issues

      • Make tiny changes to trick your brain and create additional periods of attention (for example, move to a different part of the room every hour).
      • Keep moving and switch tasks every 30-60 minutes.
      • Get outside and go for a quick walk.

      Extra pockets of attention

      • Take advantage of the periods when you're walking somewhere and make some phone calls. You can use your desk time for other tasks.
      • Keep both a physical and a digital file of reading materials. Take advantage of the time spent commuting or in the waiting rooms for your doctor's appointments.
      • Have a thinking list with big decisions for when you are driving or waiting in line for example.
      • Instead of talking via email with your co-workers, invite them for a coffee.


      Put a Deadline on Your Thoughts

      To avoid over-ruminating about a decision, give yourself a time frame to think about it. 

      If it’s a small issue such as what paint color to paint your office, perhaps...

      Schedule Your Thinking Time

      To avoid thinking about problems all day long, schedule a specific time where you give yourself the freedom to think about the issue you need to make a decision about. 

      If thoughts about the issue creep into your brain before your scheduled thinking time, tell yourself “No, I’m going to think about that after dinner, not during this meeting”.

      Problem Solving vs. Worrying

      Dwelling on a problem, thinking “this is horrible, I can’t handle this” or rehashing things that happened in the past are an unproductive use of your time.

      Thinking about what steps you can take to improve the situation or actively thinking of a solution to the problem are helpful toward moving forward. 

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      Milton Friedman

      "The best measure of quality thinking is your ability to accurately predict the consequences of your ideas a..."

      Milton Friedman
      Think in Years, Not Days

      Before jumping to a conclusion, think about the long-term consequences of your decision.

      We may respect those able to fling themselves into a hard problem and make a quick choice with seemingly little thought, but making a meaningful decision needs to be done with care for the long-term effects.

      Understand Decision Fatigue

      It’s important to be aware of what state of mind you’re in before tackling a hard choice.

      Decision fatigue happens when the mental energy required to weigh the tradeoffs of our decision becomes too much for us to handle. 

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      The Difference Between Managers And Leaders

      Leadership involves creating a compelling vision of the future, communicating that vision, and helping people understand and commit to it.

      Managers, on the other ...

      The Importance Of Delegation

      There's only so much that you can achieve working on your own, that's why it's important to delegate effectively. To successfully delegate:

      • Explain what your team's role and goals are. Or even formalize it in a team charter, which can also be useful for keeping the team on track.
      • Think about the skills, experience and competencies within your team, and start matching people to tasks. 
      Motivating Your Team

      Whatever approach you prefer to adopt, you also need to bear in mind that different people have different needs when it comes to motivation. 

      One size does not fit all. Some individuals are highly self-motivated, while others will under-perform without managerial input, and you need to be able to handle both. 

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      There are no productivity hacks
      There are no productivity hacks

      Habits and work systems can produce the best return on your time.

      Getting more work done is about knowing what to do, when to do it, and how to get it done in order to maxi...

      Unimportant tasks are really just distractions

      Urgent but unimportant tasks = distractions.

      Urgent tasks put us into constant “reply mode.” Important work is related to planned tasks that move us closer to our goals.

      Interruptions break your flow

      Anytime you are pulled away from your tasks, it takes time to readjust to them when you jump back in (sometimes it can take up to 25 minutes).

      Interruptions (notifications, loud noises, social media, checking email etc.) harm your concentration.

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      The 2 kinds of work :
      • Deep work”: using your skills to create something of value. It takes thought, energy, time and concentration.
      • Shallow work”: all the little administrative and logist...
      Cal Newport
      Cal Newport

      "The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive. "

      Cal Newport on time management
    • Don’t schedule distractions. Schedule deep work.
    • Keep a scoreboard for deep work: The point is to shame yourself if you’re not up to snuff.
    • Stop saying “yes” to unimportant stuff;
    • Have a “Deep Work Ritual”: Hiding in a conference room and throwing your phone into an abyss is a good one.
    • Ask your boss how much time they want you spending on deep vs shallow work: If they say “100% shallow”, feel free to ignore everything above.
    • Learning is necessary for our success and personal growth

      But we can’t maximize the time we spend learning because our feelings about what we ‘should’ be doing get in the way.

      When our brains equate learning and work

      If we are learning for work, then in our brains learning equals work. So we think we have to do it during the day, at our workplace.

      We think that walking is not learning. It’s ‘taking a break’. We instinctively believe that reading is learning. Having discussions about what you’ve read, however, is often not considered work, again it’s ‘taking a break’.

      The focused and diffuse thinking modes

      When mastering a subject, our brain has two general modes of thinking: focused and diffuse, both important in the learning process.

      The focused mode is what we traditionally associate with learning. But we need time to process what we pick up, to get this new information integrated into our existing knowledge. We need time to make new connections. This is where the diffuse mode comes in.

      What Deep Work Is

      A process of performing “professional activities…in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve ...

      Shallow work

      The non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted, tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

      Recognizing our limited willpower the first element of deep work.

      That means you won’t have the mental discipline to stay concentrated on a single task unless you prepare your mind and environment to it.

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      Higher cognitive performance

      Our brain can change throughout our lifetime, in relation to factors like behavior, process, and environment. It means we can still improve ourselves with strategic and incremental changes to our d...

      Find your internal rhythms

      To improve your mental ability, you have to understand its natural peaks and drops throughout the day. It can be different for every person, so pay attention to what time of the day your mind is functioning at its best.

      If you find it difficult to see what time of day your mind is functioning best, keep a productivity log. At two-hour intervals, write down your physical and mental status. You'll find a pattern of peak performance or sluggishness.

      Multitasking is a myth

      Most people have little pockets of time throughout the day, between meetings and calls and emails, with 15 minutes here, and 30 minutes there. To perform at your best depends on simple time management hacks.

      • Set aside one or two times a day to check and respond to all your messages and emails, then close your inbox.
      • Try and structure your day in one-to two-hour chunks of focused work.
      • Introduce a clear protocol for colleagues to contact one another in case of an actual emergency.

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      Be realistic about the risks

      Our natural bias is to start by imagining all the things that will go horribly wrong if we disagree with someone more powerful. Yes, your counterpart might be a little upset at first, but most like...

      Decide whether to wait

      You may decide to hold off voicing your opinion if you want to gather your army first. People can contribute experience or information to your thinking — all the things that would make the disagreement stronger or more valid. 

      Also, delay the conversation if you’re in a meeting or other public space. Discussing the issue in private will make the powerful person feel less threatened.

      Identify a shared goal

      Before you share your thoughts, think about what the powerful person cares about. You’re more likely to be heard if you can connect your disagreement to a “higher purpose.” 

      State it overtly then, contextualizing your statements so that you’re seen not as a disagreeable underling but as a colleague who’s trying to advance a shared goal. 

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      The philosophy of working "smart"

      ... is to maximize your productivity when you are working so that you can get more stuff done in shorter periods of time.

      By working smarter, you'll find yourself with more time in th...

      Find the to-do list app that work for you

      The best one for you depends entirely on your working style and personal preferences.

      You can use a physical notebook around everywhere you go, but it's easier to use a to-do list app or tool that syncs across all your devices. That way, you can access your to-do items whenever and wherever you need to, whether you're at your desk, in a meeting, or on a business trip.

      Prepare in advance

      Write out your to-do list the day before:

      • You'll free your time to dive right into your to-do list in the morning - one of the most productive times of day.
      • It can help you spot obstacles ahead of time and prepare accordingly.
      • Knowing what you have going on well in advance could help you relax and sleep better the night before.

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