Opportunities for distraction have never been so plentiful. We have a dozen social networks that are so woven into the fabric of our daily lives that using them is as habitual as brushing our teeth and millions of websites ranging from mild entertainment to intellectual porn (articles like this, that make us feel we’re doing something when we’re just consuming). Walk through an airport, a mall, a grocery store, or even a bar on a Saturday night, and it’s not uncommon to see people looking at their phones.
But a key habit I’ve noticed among successful people is that they are ruthless in avoiding these distractions. Instead, they intentionally manage what they pay attention to.
Many of the same people I hear lamenting about their lack of time, meanwhile, also update their Facebook status multiple times a day and post dozens of pictures on Instagram. Ten minutes here and there all eventually adds up. They claim to have a time management problem, but they actually have an attention management problem.
If you can learn to manage your attention, managing time will not only take care of itself, you’ll have a massive competitive advantage over most people.
Both deep work— reading, writing and other meaningful activities—and shallow work—like updating your Facebook status—require attention. Each type of work also has an opportunity cost when it comes to your attention. Deep work doesn’t cost you very much in terms of lost productivity. In fact it increases your productivity. Shallow work, on the other hand, has a high opportunity cost in terms of lost productivity. When you do shallow work, it’s much more likely to make you distracted for longer periods of time.
This is the strange paradox of attention. Whatever requires less of your attention costs more in terms of cognitive load, while what requires more costs you less.
The little things we do repeatedly lead to big changes in our lives. All of those little distractions add up to becoming the cognitive equivalent of an athlete who smokes.
Managing your attention is a skill. Like any other skill, it gets developed through practice. So how exactly do you practice managing your attention? Fortunately, everyday life provides many opportunities to do so.
Starting your day on the internet damages your ability to do good work. This is why I start the day by reading physical books and writing in a notebook. Nobody changed the world by checking email, so why on earth would you start your day by doing it.
No matter what it is we’re trying to accomplish, whether it’s writing a book, generating revenue for a company, or losing weight, there are only a handful of activities that move the needle. When we neglect these activities, we end up being busy, but we’re not productive. Productivity is not about the amount of time you spend on something. It’s about the quality of the time you spend on something. And the quality of the time is almost entirely determined by one thing: your ability to manage your attention. Professionals manage their attention. Amateurs get defeated by resistance by giving into distraction.
It’s been said over and over. Multitasking not only diminishes your productivity. It damages your attention span. Unfortunately, most people count on willpower to avoid multitasking. But the environment is always stronger than willpower. So if you have a dozen tabs open, a bunch of notifications on, and your phone in the room, you’re already working at a self-imposed handicap. You might consider your quick peek at your inbox, Instagram feed or twitter harmless. But, according to Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, “That quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing message that you cannot deal with at the moment, (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished .”
One focused hour of uninterrupted creation will do far more for you than 8 hours of perpetually interrupted work.
If there’s one thing that we don’t place nearly enough value on, it’s downtime. In fact, most downtime isn’t really downtime because we take a break and check email or social media.
If you go for a walk but are on Twitter the whole time, the value of the walk goes down. If you immerse yourself in nature and feel the need to document that experience on Instagram, the benefits of being in nature diminish.
The unconscious mind is doing a great deal of work during downtime. This is why so many we have so many eureka moments when we’re in the shower or away from our work.
When you plan your days the night before, you not only increase productivity, you also avoid decision fatigue and preserve your willpower. Not all hours of the day are created equal. Your attention span is going to be highest during certain parts of the day, which is why I always recommend spending the first hour of the day on activities that add meaning and value to your life.
If you want to get better at managing your attention, you have to learn to say no to everything that’s not aligned with your essential priorities. When I looked at my own creative and working process, I realized three activities created a disproportionate amount of value in my business:
- Writing:Writing allows me to share my ideas with the world in the form of books and articles. Articles increase the size of our email list and expose more people to my work. The size of the email list has a direct impact on the sales of books.
- Interviews: I do these for the podcast. The podcast creates revenue through sponsorship.
- Speaking at conferences and companies directly contributes to my bottom line.
The value of nearly everything else that I do pales in comparison to these three activities. After identifying these priorities, I assumed the value of my time was what I got paid for an hour speech. And in that context, it was no longer worth it for me to do the following activities:
- Home improvement work: I usually hire someone from TaskRabbit. What takes them an hour would take me all day. And if it’s going to take me all day, I’m not just going to lose that time, but more time because of how pissed off I am about the whole experience. That’s a high opportunity cost, considering your state of mind is one of your most priceless assets.
- Shopping:These days I always make an appointment with a personal stylist at Nordstrom. I tell them what I need. They get a room ready, and I’m out of there in 30 minutes.
This one skill, managing your attention, will do more for your trajectory than any life hack. Start today. You’ll be surprised by how quickly things can change.
A version of this article originally appeared on Medium.