Time Management is dead. Long live attention management.

Julia Gifford 26.09.2012
Time Management is dead

Guest Blogger Graham Allcott, author of “How to be a Productivity Ninja”, discusses why attention, not time, is the key to ninja-level productivity.

Time management used to be so simple: spend the first hour of the day sorting out the post and incoming paperwork, then get on to the high priority tasks.  Spend the middle part of the day doing mid-level tasks and the end of the day wrapping up with the easier stuff.  There was no such thing as information overload, or at its’ worst it looked like six pieces of A4 paper in your pigeon hold.  Then we went digital, information became cheap and we got swamped: email, social media, the internet, software programmes, CRM systems, instant messenger, phone…

Where time management success was judged by completion, modern-day productivity is as much about what you ignore as what you do.  It’s time to think like a ninja!

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In July this year I released my book, “How to be a Productivity Ninja”, a culmination of the last three years of work of my company, Think Productive.  We run time management courses that feel very different to what you’ve probably experienced before – and our dedicated email training workshop is the stuff of legend – get your inbox to zero in just three hours!

The mindset of a Ninja offers us some very useful ways to approach out work.  Here are a couple of the characteristics of a productivity ninja that can help you focus on successfully managing your attention rather than your time – and getting the right things done as a result.

Zen-like calm

The game has changed.  If you thought you could get it all done, think again.  Those were the old days.  Success now is an ability to remain focused and not be stressed by all the things you’re not doing.  You know they’re there.  You know you’ll get around to them, but you’re comfortable in the fact that you’re not doing them right now.  Multi-tasking is a myth: zen-like, relaxed, hyper-focussed monotasking is the goal.

Silence the distractions and anxieties about the things you can’t currently do.  Use technology or paper to create a ‘second brain’ – a good system to store the information, actions and cyclical procedures in task lists, checklists and files.  By using a system that you trust, you’ll stop feeling the stressed by trying to keep it all in your head!


Next, silence the external distractions that can take you wildly off course.  Here’s an uncomfortable fact for you.  It’s much easier to check your Facebook notifications than it is to do that hard-thinking on that difficult piece of work you’re doing.  No wonder you choose the five minutes of “brain rest” rather than cracking on.  Personally, I know my weaknesses.  So I will often work with my internet switched off, my email switched off, my phone on silent, my iPad in another room, or whatever else I need to be ruthless with myself.

Likewise, could you afford to be more ruthless in your focus, in choosing what not to do, or choosing how you do things?  Could you create rules so that some of those emails never reach your inbox at all, but land in a separate folder for later quick-checking and deletion?  Thinking like a ninja means being ruthless with your attention and focus.  Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’.  And practice saying ‘no’ in logical, nice and graceful ways!

Stealth and camouflage

A ninja uses stealth and camouflage as important attention management weapons.  Think about it: If you had to design the most distracting environment in order to blow your work off course, what would it look like?  It would look like most of the offices I see when I’m running workshops.  Offices are inherently full of distractions and pressures: pressures to perform, pressures to communicate unnecessarily, pressures to conform to rigid structures that get in the way or get too many others in the way.  Are there times when working alone, away from the limelight, might be more effective?  Making yourself unavailable and getting away from the noise are naughty but often effective tricks!  Book a  meeting room just to sit, think and plan on your own.  Spend time working from home. Spend time working hard on the thing you know is right, seeking approval less often.  Stay out of the limelight until you’re ready for the spotlight!


Since we’re trying to pay attention to our attention, we need to become skilled in listening to ourselves, realising and relating to our thought patterns and start actually treating our brains as our greatest tools.  Meditation, prayer or general mindfulness are great ways to work out what your brain is processing, and bring subconscious thoughts and feelings to the surface.  Meditation in particular can bring powerful benefits to increase your attention.  It’s as simple as sitting down and focussing on nothing but the present.  There are many perspectives and approaches – many religious or spiritual, many atheist or simply practical – and even apps such as Headspace or Buddhify if you need a helping hand.

Creativity teacher Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way offers two mindfulness techniques to encourage your inner-artist to emerge.  Both are simple ways to connect with the deeper levels of our psyche that we often ignore, or miss because of the noise and hubbub of everyday life.  One is the ‘morning pages’: simply write 3 sides of A4 paper, as a direct stream of consciousness.  Write whatever comes into your head.  It’s a great tool to listen to that inner-chatter – and help work out the ways to occasionally silence it!  The other is characterised simply by going for walks.  Not to arrive, but just to walk.  By walking – like meditating – we can pay attention to what’s on our minds, fire up our creative energies or look at things from a different perspective.

A productivity ninja is not a superhero… but it often appears that they are!

A lot of these books and blogs about productivity are basically a mixture of neat tricks and nagging.  But I think it’s important to pause and remember that ninjas are just humans.  As amazing and as skilled as we can become, we can always only do so much.  We might never get to the end of our to-do list, so our job is to feel comfortable with what we’re doing.  We can do amazing things – but we can’t do everything!

Humans make mistakes too and we shouldn’t try to be perfect.  Aiming for perfection is often the quickest way to ensure things get stuck.  There’s glory in imperfection because it fuels our ability to deliver – better an imperfect dome in Florence than a castle in the sky.  And imperfection is also a curious and wonderful reminder that behind every amazing thing that gets done is a human, not a superhero.  No one you admire was actually a superhero: not Steve Jobs, not Elvis, not Churchill, not Stephen Hawking.  All humans, with fallibilities and foibles just like yours.  So remember you can be amazing too.  Off you go now, you’ve got work to do.

Graham is the founder of Think Productive.  His book, “How to be a Productivity Ninja”, is available on Amazon and the e-book is being sold in aid of READ International – so for every digital book sold, at least five real text books will arrive in some rural Tanzanian schools that really need them!  Buy a book, change a life.

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