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Worry less, achieve more: How to be productive at work

Last updated on: December 22, 2014 11:17 IST

'Attention is your currency.'

'... it's the most valuable currency in the world.'

There is indeed a way to check every item on your to-do list, get your unread emails down to zero says British author, Graham Allcott.

Allcott, a productivity trainer and social entrepreneur talks about learning to work smarter, not harder and offering a practical guide to staying cool, calm and collected, getting more done, and learning to love your work again.

Excerpts from his latest book, How to be a Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More and Love What You Do:

In any knowledge work job, you're really playing two different 'roles' at once: you're simultaneously the 'boss' and the 'worker'.

You're responsible for:

Deciding what your work is ('boss-mode')

Doing the work ('worker-mode').

Dealing with new information inputs (worker-mode) and reacting to them to decide whether to change your priorities as a result (boss-mode).

This creates an immediate conflict and serious potential for indecision about which role should have your attention at different times of the day: do you spend more time in boss-mode (thinking and analysing your work, ensuring its success, planning your next steps) or in worker-mode (putting cherries on cakes, in whatever form that takes in your current job)?

Naturally, the grass is always greener: the time you spend in boss-mode may remind you of all the things that you need to be doing in the trenches.

Yet, while you're trying to crank through your to-do list, you'll be making mental notes about all the new projects that need some precious thinking time.

Since most people do not have specific definitions or boundaries around what is boss-mode and what is worker-mode for them, they get stressed about whether they've made good decisions and often procrastinate as a result -- not having good boundaries or habits here means never finishing boss-mode thinking and never being quite sure when in 'doing' (worker) mode that you're actually doing the right stuff.

This is where 'attention management' comes in -- your new best friend in the battle against stress and information overload.

What does attention really mean?

Your attention is a more limited resource than your time.

Have you ever got to the end of a day when you've still got loads to do, you're still motivated to do it and you have all the tools or information that you need, yet find that you're just staring into space?

Under those circumstances, you'll often tell yourself you ran out of time, but actually you just ran out of attention to give.

On other days, you might feel as if you've been in back-to-back meetings all day, and it's 4 pm before you even have a chance to get any desk time in, to finally look at emails, catch up on your reading and planning, and seize control.

On these days, you might really feel that you're short on time, not on attention.

Wrong again.

Your attention is a currency to be spent, and if you choose to give away as much as 80 per cent of your attention to meetings, don't be surprised if that final 20 per cent of your attention amounts to little more than dealing with a few emails, followed by time spent staring into space and feeling overwhelmed.

But don't fool yourself that it was anyone else's fault -- if you start to think about the time spent in meetings not just in terms of the time you lose, but also in terms of the attention and energy expended, you soon realise that complex and difficult meetings are a massive drain on your personal resources.

Attention is your currency.

Time might be spent, but attention still needs to be paid.

Look after this currency, as it's the most valuable currency in the world.

In an average day, you will have different levels of attention. For ease, a crude analysis might highlight three different types of attention:

Proactive attention:

This is where you are fully focused, alert, in the zone and ready to make your most important decisions or tackle your most complex tasks.

This level of attention is extremely important and through this book my hope is that you realise just how valuable it really is.

Active attention:

This is where you're plugged in, ticking along, but perhaps flagging slightly.

You're easily distracted, occasionally brilliant, but often sloppy too.

This level of attention is useful.

Inactive attention:

The lights are on but no one appears to be home.

There's not too much brainpower left and you're likely to really struggle with complex or difficult tasks.

Your attention here isn't worthless, but its value is limited.

Of course, these are crude and artificial demarcations, but useful ones to think about when trying to maximise your productivity through good attention management.

I have spent the last two years watching my attention management trends and flows and talking to others about their own patterns, too.

Reprinted by permission of Penguin India. Excerpted from How to be a Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More and Love What You Do. Copyright 2012, 2014 Graham Allcott. All rights reserved.

Image used for representational purposes only.

Photograph: Akshay Mahajan/Creative Commons

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