You don’t need time management. You need attention management.

You’ve heard it before, and likely pay lip-service to it: “time is the most precious commodity. It’s the one thing you cannot buy.” Do you believe this?

Do you believe that time can be killed or that time can be made? You use these phrases often, after all.

Yes, it is true you get the same 24 hours anyone else gets. And if you are like me, after spending just half of one of those hours on something deemed “not worthy,” you feel a familiar pang of guilt… only to find yourself spending another doing the same thing.

Here’s the problem: you are protective of the wrong thing. You complain about standing in a long line. What would you have done otherwise? Instagram? You tell that acquaintance you’ll get together another night. So you can spend tonight on Netflix.

The precious commodity is not your time, but your attention. Without your attention, your time is meaningless. What you give your attention to in any moment is the only value that moment has.

And our attention has been hijacked. We have a deficit of it. It’s weak.

I’ve recently begun meditating again (my third attempt at building the habit). The most difficult aspect, as anyone will immediately find, is controlling your attention. Your thoughts wander, you get restless, your mind is totally out of control. See, the power in meditation is not in uplifting the spirit but in strengthening the skill of focusing your attention. To eventually be able to control it. To be mindful instead of constantly mindless. It’s more difficult than it sounds. [1]

What is the most valuable thing to Google? To Facebook? To Twitter? To your favorite news media? It’s their users’ attention, and they’re damn good at keeping it. Without it, they cannot keep you on the site, looking at and clicking on ads. This is not an original concept, but I still believe it is underappreciated. You are not paying for these services in time, but attention. And by being protective of your time but not your attention, you are duped into thinking it’s a fair deal.

At the risk of sounding like the old “get off my lawn” grandpa persona I am surely bumbling towards, TikTok appears to be the worst offender. They reward the minimum amount of passive attention (15s) with the maximum amount of dopamine. It’s a hormonal slot machine. An infinite jest.

Do not let these apps have unchecked control of your attention.

I contend that one of the most important skills we can develop is not time-management but attention-management. To actively manage who or what gets your attention. Decide not “what is the best thing to do with this next 30 minutes,” but “what is the best thing to pay attention to for the next 30 minutes.” You might surprise yourself.

This does not mean being busy for the sake of busy. How you spend your attention is how your prioritize your life. Do you prioritize a status-seeking state of busyness over progress, relationships, learning?

Indeed, take your leisure. But really pay attention to it. My personal favorite activities are reading and taking a walk while trying to pick out all of the different bird calls. But whatever it is, be active in your consumption.

Hear each note of your song.


[1] My favorite app, which instills this approach, is Sam Harris’ Waking Up.

One thought on “You don’t need time management. You need attention management.

  1. I heard recently in a philosophy chat room, “time is an opinion”. The extent to which you pay attention to another person’s viewpoint is what you’re saying is valuable, rather than the time itself. This is because the same amount of attention can be compressed into a lesser amount of time if need be, so the objective time is not important compared to subjective time. It’s like a job you show up for just to hang around. It’s not really productive or valuable. This is where attention deficit (ADD) people shine. How stressful is it when you must pay attention to someone else’s viewpoint when at the same time you *can’t not* pay attention to your own. So you are paying double time. These people “get it”, see through the veil of busywork being perceived as important just because someone important said so. Who is this, who gets to do that, and why does their edict obviate the golden rule: treat others as you’d like to be treated. It’s one thing to think one has a great opinion, but another to force feed this opinion to others, day after day. It’s simply exhausting.

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