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.

Just let me read one more thing and I’ll be ready

I.

I have this tendency, and maybe you do too. I think it’s born from a feeling of never quite being ready or skilled enough to accomplish something — say a job interview, or a diet, or a new hobby, or a blog, or a business. It’s caused by the fear of uncertainty that lies ahead in whatever pursuit might be worthwhile.

I believe the biggest achievers in life (and don’t lie, you want to be one of them too), have a singular, obsessive focus. A grand vision. A master plan. And they pursue it doggedly until it is realized.

So I try to bootstrap myself to a vision. And unfortunately this is incredibly easy for my uber-forward-looking brain to do. I get drunk on that vision. I succumb to daydreams and sleepless hours of bedtime fantasizing. I create movies of conversations I’ll have with mentors, or future employees.

I encumber my browser tabs with articles promising to answer the question “how do I do this?” Or I fill my Amazon cart with books from an online reading list promising everything you need to know about this. “Once I read through all of these,” I think to myself, “I’ll have developed enough expertise to begin.”

I get this rush in my chest like I’m finally about to open the lost scrolls and be given The Secret. So I settle into a chair, open the book, and be prepare to be graced with enlightenment…

But it never, ever, comes.

And then I find reality of the work is nothing like these fantasies. I’m crushed. And I walk away, rejected and defeated. Please, fate, tell me I’m not the only one.

Sure I get closer. I gain a little knowledge or wisdom. I become a better person, or better thinker. But no, I still don’t have it figured out. I’m still not an expert. And I’m still navigating with uncertainty.

I flounder. I experience the dip. I realize how hard it really is to become an expert, or to change a personality trait, or to fix a diet. And I quit. Books go unread. Tabs get closed.

You think I’d be immune to this pattern by now. I’m not.


II.

If it can’t be destroyed, can it be managed? I believe it can. And a blog is one way to do that. By writing freely and openly about my current pursuits or interests, waking from the daydream and releasing my expectations for what each pursuit might bring, I will build a path, brick-by-brick, with destination unknown. You can only connect the dots looking backward.

Michel de Montaigne, a favorite lay philosopher of mine, took this flaneur-like approach to his own interests. He’d write an essay on whichever topic happened to excite his intellect. It seems like a more fulfilling and care-free way to live.

A great struggle in my life is to overcome building up a vision so clearly only to have reality slap me in the face. I know that by reading, instead of doing, I can prolong that slap. But it will hit sooner or later, and it will turn me away all the same.

How can we set ourselves up to expect, and then push through, the slap? Is it better to live aimlessly? No, I contend. But neither is it good to live with such a targeted and specific aim that you cannot accomplish it.

I believe, like most things in life, the optimum is somewhere in the middle. How can we feel out that middle path?

First, by setting an abstract vision for yourself — the kind of life you want to lead and the kind of achievement you strive for — you can give yourself flexibility to reorient and determine a concrete path to the next step. If it’s too concrete, the cold slap of reality will destroy it swiftly.

Second, determine the next concrete step to achieving that goal and set a deadline. Try to do it without too much research first; another failure trap. But what if research and asking for advice are part of the next step? It’s fine, but make sure you self-reflect enough to know it’s not a procrastination technique.

Third, keep a constant perspective on long-term thinking. Short-term thinking is really easy to abandon. A goal like “lose 5 pounds in a month” is incredibly short-term. The consequences of failure are small, and the ability to push out the deadline too easy. Instead, if your next concrete step is short-term, remind yourself that this short-term goal is the best thing to get me closer to my long-term vision.

Fourth, bias yourself towards action. If you don’t know if you should consume or produce, always pick produce. The most successful people in life have been those that could Get Things Done.


III.

I am not a master at this process, nor am I entirely sure it’s perfect. I’ll write posts here as I discover more about it and how my mind works. It’s an on-going conversation. Maybe you have a different perspective, which I encourage hearing.

I can say, though, that from what I’ve gotten from studying successful people, they all do something like the four steps above. Take everybody’s default successful person example: Steve Jobs. Was his grand 25-year old vision in 1982 to invent the iPhone? Impossible. But his unflinching vision did guide him into determine that the iPhone was the next best concrete step in the mid 2000s.

What is that vision to you?