“I just find myself with too much time on my hands throughout the day!” Is it safe to assume that this statement has rarely, if ever, been muttered by leaders and managers in today’s professional environment? In fact, “being busy” is often worn as a prideful badge of honor. It is a popular statement in part because it is an admirable one. Having free time, on the other hand, makes you look dispensable and irrelevant

In a time when we are accessible every moment of every day, when organizations are lean yet expectations are high, we have largely failed to address a skill that must be developed – both within an effective leader and within those who are being managed.

The skill? Attention allocation.

Commonly, we focus on time management – an oxymoron! Time cannot be reined in, slowed down, or controlled – yet how we choose to allocate our attention every moment of every day can be.

Educate your Environment
One of the biggest challenges of being a parent is that whether you like it or not, there are eyes on you at all times! Children watch, process, and mimic the behaviors modeled to them regardless of if those behaviors are productive or damaging. Similarly, those on your team are constantly observing the way you manage priorities, react to deadlines, and allocate your attention. Therefore, we must remember that if we want to engrain effective attention allocation skills within an organization or department, it must first start with modeling those skills from the top. What can this sound like?

  • “It sounds like what you want to talk about is important to you, so I want to be able to give you my dedicated attention. Let’s schedule a time when it works for both of us so we can discuss this at a time where I will not be distracted like I would be right now.”
  • “I am in the middle of a priority project; is this an emergency? If so, I am happy to stop what I am doing but if not, please send me an email and I will respond by the end of the day with a time for us to meet personally.”
  • “That’s a great question; give me an idea of what you’ve done already to try to find an answer.”

What can this look like? Consider closing out email with the exception of several pre-set times throughout the day or late evening. The team will learn at what times you are engaged in administrative activities, keeping other times sacred for forward-motion activities or primary responsibilities. A doctor does not check emails in the middle of surgery, and a lawyer is not accepting incoming calls while the opposing counsel is grilling his client. What makes the critical responsibilities of your role less deserving of your own concentration? Very rarely is anything so urgent and critical that it cannot wait for a reply within an hour; you may even find that issues solve themselves without you having to!

Practice Being Fully Present
In our “information overload” society, learning how to stay fully present can certainly be challenging! In fact, “nomophobia” is a term jokingly used by psychologists to refer to the 40% of the population now addicted to their smartphones. What is the habit you need to break in order to be more fully present in your personal and professional interactions?

As an example, if you are in a meeting with someone on the team, be in that meeting. Put your desk phone on “out,” silence your cell phone, turn off your monitor if it may be a distraction, and position your body to fully face the other individual. Give your full, undivided attention. Watch how they respond over time, and realize the impact that being fully present can have on those with whom you work.

An added benefit? This actually trains your brain to be more effective. When working on administrative work, it is easier for you to be fully focused in that work because your brain is slowly reprogramming itself away from the compulsive need to respond to over-stimulation, dings, clicks, and alerts coming from all directions.

Value of Time
How do we know which activities, initiatives, and emergencies are deserving of our attention? Know the value of your time, and train those within your team to think the same way. Take how much you will earn (or would like to earn) annually, and divide by the number of work hours in a year. Now, take that hourly billable rate and double it, because that will give you a “prime time” amount that you should strive to spend at least a few hours per day engaged in the highest “billable rate” activities possible. When you are aware of the value of your time, suddenly spending 30 minutes reorganizing your desk in the middle of “prime time” seems like a waste. The peripheral colleague who wanted to catch up on the weekend? Those 15 minutes may have cost you several dollars or several hundred based on your billable rate. Getting caught up on emails and admin may be important, but prioritize several dedicated hours per day to be actively engaged in surgery or the courtroom.

Just Say No
Does it seem impossible to get it all done in a day? It is. You can no longer fit everything in, no matter how effectively you allocate your attention. The moment you embrace that truth, you instantly reduce your stress and feelings of inadequacy. Learn to say no; perhaps this is no longer volunteering for certain committees, or hiring someone to do lawn maintenance or handle “to-do’s” at home. Create boundaries on how and where you allocate your attention.

—Karen Schmidt

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