Manifest 8: The Attention Muscle

👋🏼 Welcome new humans!

Thanks so much for signup up and/or downloading a Manifest Notion Template; this newsletter shares links and resources to achieve more by doing less. 😉

tl;dr
  • 3 ways to strengthen your attention muscle: 1) single-task, 2) remove one distraction, 3) create one time-block for your most important task of the day. and 4) document distractions to gameplan on how to avoid them.

  • In this post, I share my takeaways building a website with Notion and Super.

  • Notion's Groups feature is a gamechanger. Thomas Frank covers it beautifully in this YouTube video.

  • Join us on Friday as I walk through building a website with Notion & Super. RSVP here.


Your attention muscle can be your super power, here's how to strengthen it.

Productivity isn't about doing more, faster — it's about doing the right things, deliberately and with intention.

Chris Bailey, The Productivity Project

One of the great conundrums in productivity is our often obsession with time. Time management. Time efficiency. Time blocking.

But (as far as I know) it's the only measurable property that we can't control. There's no way to increase the time in a day, week, or month, yet we continue to respond to time by trying to work faster, squeezing in more tasks in a set period, or giving ourselves too-aggressive deadlines.

Managing our time can be hugely impactful by helping us focus energy on our priorities, but only if we analyze time in relation to another key area: attention.

The last two years have wreaked havoc on our attention. From one moment to the next, millions of knowledge workers went from commuting to an office to working fully remote. Schedules were up-ended, and the ebb and flow of typical workdays replaced with never-ending work-life limbo of working from home. We’re more distracted than ever, and its significantly affecting our work. There’s even a sleep disorder specific to the pandemic, coronasomnia.

In The Productivity Project, Chris Bailey attributes a whole section of the book to what he calls the attention muscle. In the book, attention is the key to 'focusing more on the task to spending our time and attention more efficiently in the moment.'

Bailey makes a strong case for focusing on attention, but a few jaw-dropping statistics really stand out to make his point.

A study conducted by Harvard psychologists Mathew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that we spend 47 percent of our waking hours in daydreaming mode.

According to (research firm) Basex, “Interruptions and the requisite recovery time now consume 28 percent of a worker’s day.”

What would you do with an extra 2 1/2 hours each day?

When we focus on our attention (or lack thereof) throughout the day, time management is almost irrelevant. Imagine you had an extra 150 minutes each day. Your answer to how you would spend that time tells you exactly what you prioritize the most, which is undoubtedly worth working toward.

Of course, a goal being in 'wandering mode' 0% of the time is both unrealistic and counter-productive, it is worth assessing how much of our wandering hours are for resting the mind, versus being occupied by distractions, notifications, or disruptions.

The Productivity Project is definitely worth a read, as Bailey conducts some interesting (and peculiar) self-experiments to better understand how humans work.

So how do we strengthen our attention muscles?

We first need to identify what is taking and holding our attention, and whether their origin is internal or external. In Indistractable, Nir Eyal dives into countering distraction with traction. Eyal posits that distraction is almost always preceded by discomfort; ie. you're about to take on a stressful task, and decide to hop on Twitter instead.

Identify Internal & External Triggers

Identifying whether triggers are internal or external can help us strategically change or limit behaviors that cause distraction. Eyal breaks down the difference as:

“Internal triggers cue us from within. When we feel our belly growl, we look for a snack. When we’re cold, we find a coat to warm up. And when we’re sad, lonely, or stressed, we might call a friend or loved one for support.”

“External triggers, on the other hand, are cues in our environment that tell us what to do next, like the pings, dings, and rings that prompt us to check our emails, open a news alert, or answer a phone call.”

Nir Eyal, Indistractable

If you’re interested in doing this exercise, I made a Distraction Tracker template based on Nir Eyal’s model; you can download it for free here. In many ways, identifying triggers is the easy part. In order to change behavior to maintain control over your attention, a great place to start is with James Clear's method of increasing friction between you and distraction.

Increase the friction associated with bad behaviors. When friction is high, habits are difficult.
James Clear, Atomic Habits

I've put together a list of three things you can do right now to start intentionally strengthening your attention muscle.

3 Steps You Can Take to Strengthen Your Attention Muscle:

  1. Find opportunities to single-task.

    Maybe it's a Zoom call, a strategy session, or a block to work independently. Single-tasking is a difficult skill to master. Focusing on one time period per day is manageable, and can help strengthen your focus. Even if you have the urge to check your notifications during a meeting, don’t. You’re actually weakening your attention muscle.

  2. Remove one recurring distraction.

    Do you get persistent notifications from a particular app? Do you keep email open in the background? When we start to look for them, they're everywhere. Rather than turn off everything at once, identify the most persistent source of distraction, and either limit it to specific times, or remove it altogether. Going cold turkey on all notifications may seem achievable, but you’re setting yourself up for failure. We rely on notifications to stay connected to the world, so maintaining that connection while decreasing distraction is a delicate balance.

  3. Start with one time block for deep work.

    It’s natural to think of time boxing as a time management strategy, but its goal is more focused on attention within a given time. Before we go full ‘time-boxing guru,’ it starts with one block, then two, then several. Identify one block of time (even if it's 15 minutes), and assign a task to complete in that time, ideally the most important task of the day. The key here is actively avoiding distraction, and bringing your mind back to focus when it’s wandered off. Executing on one thing per day during a set time will build confidence in your ability to maintain attention on the work that matters.

  4. Document distractions.

    In Indistractable, Nir Eyal lays out why documenting your distractions can provide visibility into what environments, scenarios, and devices cause the most disruption. This Distraction Tracker not only documents sources of distraction, but nudges you to identify possible solutions, whether they’re creating more friction, or changing how you respond to triggers.


other updates

Building in Public | Relaunching The Notion Coach

In the process of consolidating The Notion Coach and Manifest Productivity Blog, I've been using super.so to build a site where I can publish quickly, while having all the bells & whistles of a custom site, like SEO and analytics.

I wrote a short post on the topic here, and am also hosting a live session on the process, in case you're also considering creating a website with Notion & Super. You can RSVP here.

Notion's New Groups Feature is the App's Biggest Update of 2021

I try to avoid hyperbole in these emails, but I'm giddy over this. Check out his video, Notion's New Grouping Feature is a Gamechanger.

I'm most excited about time-boxing with Notion's new Groups feature; I was working on a time boxing template, but this has made it SO much easier to use. Will be releasing it in the next few weeks!

Looking Ahead

I've had the opportunity to check-in with many Manifest OS users, gathering feedback, and applying the slew of new features in Notion, in preparation for Manifest 2022, a revamped template that is cleaner, lighter, and much more intuitive.

If you're interested in getting early discounted access to the template, let me know here!