Working Smarter

Work-Life Is Attention Management

Posted by Joe Robinson


As I'm sure you have noticed, the mind has a mind of its own. It nags, frets, and guilts with a steady stream of thoughts that get in the way of things we are trying to do. It would be nice if it could just clam up for a while, especially with the badgering about things on our to-do list.

A study at Florida State University (Masicampo, Baumeister) found that worries about unfinished business distract attention, reducing performance in the process. Trying to do a task with an unfinished one hanging over your head hinders performance by flooding short-term memory with anxious thoughts. The fragile state of working memory—three or four thought chunks we can hold onto for only a few seconds at a time—is easy prey for worries that intrude from the unhandled realm.


It turns out that not handling things is a danger signal for a brain on the lookout for things that are wrong—and that thinks it’s the year 100,000 BC. The warning sign means we are not in control, not handling something, which in turn means that something has overloaded capacity to cope. That is the on-button for anxiety and the stress response.

To stay focused, we need to persuade the alarmist brain that things are being handled. That’s what good time management and work-life balance do. They shut down the nattering brain through prioritizing, planning, and adjustments to schedules that allow people to feel they are managing both sides of the work-life hyphen. As soon as the hectoring brain feels things are being handled, it lets up, say researchers. It doesn’t have to respond to the errant “something wrong,” “out of control” messages anymore.

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The key to silencing the to-do nag is to get the item out of your head and physically in the world, on paper or a screen. You write down your next physical action, whatever that may be—picking up a phone, grabbing a pen, speaking with someone, and noting when you’re going to do the item. That lets your brain know you are on the case, and it stops pestering.


The same thing applies to really big projects you have yet to start that may be bugging you. The longer you procrastinate, the longer the mind will badger, but if you do something, anything to get started on the project, all of a sudden, the looming dread fades, and the brain releases its alarm button. Spend 30 minutes to get a big assignment started, and just the time spent thinking and semi-organizing it takes the pressure off. Break the task into micro-bits, say 30 minutes a day, and you can chip away at it. Better yet, the project that would not let up its drumbeat feels under control.

I call it the “base camp” approach. Legendary mountain climber, Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the world 8000 meter- peaks, told me he doesn’t look at the mountaintop when he starts his climb. Too overwhelming. Instead, he focuses on just getting to the base camp for the day.

It’s a methodical approach we can use every day. One step in front of the other, by learning how to prioritize, to separate the urgent from the important, by not falling for time panic that aggravates the angst of the undone, and keeping our focus on the day's base camp.


My work-life balance programs take the concept of clarifying attention to the macro scale, building in adjustments to demands, devices, and distractions, and giving people flexibility in areas that allow them to feel they are able to handle both work and home responsibilities.

I hear from parents a lot that they feel guilty when they are at work and not taking care of their kids and guilty at home when they’re not at work getting more done. Flexibility in start times or a day or two a week of telework can make a big difference in creating a sense that both sides of the balance ledger are better controlled. The mind lets go of the chastising, and you are able to focus on the task at hand without the intrusion of untaken care of issues.

We all have a job we have to do, but how we do it is where we can build in the flexibility that allows for more effective work practices, ones that can reduce strain and the static of unhandled business. In my work-life balance training programs we drill down to the task practices and bottlenecks that make work and life difficult and build in the adjustments researchers have documented are much more effective.

In a world where attention is under siege, we forget that it is our chief productivity tool. Anything that is blowing up working memory and concentration is undermining productivity and the bottom-line. That may be why people who report good work-life balance are 21% more productive than their colleagues, according to a survey by the Corporate Executive Board, which represents 80% of Fortune 500 companies. 

Making it as easy as possible for minds to work unfettered by mental sidetracking and thoughts of overwhelm should be the goal of every team and organization. When minds are waylaid by the strain of the unhandled, attention isn’t just disrupted, it’s also replaced by the addled and frantic decisions of the caveman/woman brain that takes the wheel when capacity to cope is overloaded.

As they say, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Work-life balance and time management strategies are your insurance plan for attention management.

If you would like to learn more about our work-life balance or time management training programs, including "Managing Crazy-Busy Workload," click the button below for more details.

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Tags: work life balance, time management programs, attention and productivity, working memory, atterntion management, stress and working memory

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