A colleague came up to me looking frustrated. 

Her boss complained frequently about her lack of productivity and she has spent hours analyzing where her time went. She has subscriptions to all major productivity apps and goes through almost all the things on her to-do list everyday. 

She had even started marking her bathroom breaks and monitored the amount of water she drank while she was at work. In a nutshell, she spent every moment of her day working. Yet her boss complained that she wasn’t productive enough. 

The problem was that she confused being busy with being productive.

We live in a world where we are all obsessed with productivity. We stack up our bedside table with numerous books on productivity, save countless productivity videos on YouTube, and seek advice from anyone who seems moderately successful. 

We fantasize ourselves to lead a four hour work-week. At the same time, we slog 12-16 hours a day, at least 6 days a week. 

Hustling, being busy, and seeking the badge of illusion of productivity. When we speak of being productive, what we essentially mean is being good at time management. 

The supposed key to productivity, however, could be part of the problem. 

There are a limited number of hours in a day and focusing on managing time only makes us realise how much time we really waste. Time management assumes we have control over time. 

We don’t. 

A better approach to being more productive is to manage our attention. Prioritise focusing on projects, and getting it done for the right reasons and it won’t matter how long it takes. 

According to psychologist Adam Grant, “Attention management is the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments.”

Time isn’t a problem. 

We all have the same 24 hours in a day. What matters is who or what we pay attention to. We are all easily distracted. he antidote to distraction is attention. We can’t control time but we sure can control what we spend our time on.

 We need to eliminate noise. 

Instead of allowing the distractions to derail us, we take control of what we want to respond to. 

For instance, we can choose to allow our flooded inbox or incessant messages on the phone to deflect us from what really needs to be done.  We can also take a pause and ‘attend’ to it later at our own time and pace. 

I realised that in order to create a life based on choices that are important to me, I needed to eliminate noise. It is really about prioritising rather than checking off things on a to-do list. 

I identified the distractions; used a blocker to initially give me the push. 

The more distracted you are, the less likely it is that you are going to be productive. 

Next, I created a list of priorities. Once the priority is set, you need to break down the tasks. 

Seeing a big task as the sum of its parts improves productivity. If the task is too big, it may even feel difficult to start. Chunking down and setting breakpoints within the tasks will help in creating and achieving smaller milestones. 

I tried to increase my focus gradually rather than doing it all at once.

If you can focus for 10 minutes at a time, try to build it first to 15, then 20, and so on. Rather than investing in time management or to-do apps, spend time on apps that help you build your attention. 

Lastly, I strive to avoid multitasking at all costs. 

While apps like Slack and even email were introduced to increase our productivity, I can’t help but wonder if it did the opposite. Imagine you are working on an important brief and on the right top of your screen you keep getting messages on your Slack channel. 

How well are you going to focus on the brief? 

While working on important tasks, mute your phone, emails, and so-called productivity apps. Focus on only one thing at a time and reserve some time for deep work when you are less likely to be disturbed. 

Identify which tasks demand ‘deep’ work and which tasks are shallow work. Responding to emails, messages, etc is a shallow task and when you spend prime time on it, you are busy but not productive. Schedule shallow tasks for when you have a low energy period.

Remember that the technology is around to serve you and not the other way around. 

We have framed our live around the notion that to be productive we need to be better at time management. However, no one can actually manage time. It always seems to pass us by. 

We all have the same amount. The better and far more efficient approach is to practice attention management. By managing time, we’ll just end up staying busy. 

But to be truly productive, we need to gear up for focus, attention, and some deep work.