Is it Time to Retire the Never-Ending List?

One afternoon, earlier this year, as I was scanning a long list that I was adding to endlessly, I realized, I’ll never get it all done. That’s probably just fine. But this endless list and this feeling of being completely scheduled’s not working right now.

I met some friends for dinner and put the question out: Do you have a never-ending list? Do you manage your time? Do you manage minutes, tasks, and lists? Do you start each day with a list that has more on it at the end of the day than it did at the beginning of the day, in spite of how many items are completed and crossed off?

Or do you manage your attention? Do you manage emotions, intention, and make choices about what will and will not get done? What are your favorite ways to do this?
I got such an interesting set of answers, that, these last few months, I made a point of asking a variety of people: office workers, surgeons, physicians, artists, parents, and CEOs. Here’s what I’ve learned.

In the cases where people reported managing their time, they more often reported experiencing burn-out, they didn’t know how much longer they could go on at their particular job or lifestyle. There was often a sense of helplessness and overwhelm. The endless list, the one that gets added to and never completed, at the center of it all, left them with a heavy heart and a burdened sense of tomorrow. There was no celebration of what had been accomplished, no kick back and enjoy after a day well done. Office workers with schedules packed with meetings, projects, and overflowing email boxes reported best efforts to manage time; best efforts that left them breathless. Physicians, rapidly cycling through appointments and report writing, focused on time and efficiency. Time. Efficiency. Lists. Tasks.

What did surgeons, artists, and CEOs have in common? Most of them reported that they managed both their time and their attention. In surgery, in the studio, and in the time carved out to think through strategies and issues, these professionals reported shutting down the devices and endless inputs (email, phone, interruptions), at scheduled times, and claiming those moments to focus. In almost every case, these professionals reported experiencing “flow” (a la Csikszentmihalyi) in their work.

We think we know what attention is. In fact, today’s dictionary will tell us it’s the “concentration of the mental powers upon an object.” This definition assumes our attention can effectively be everywhere, all the time. We haven’t always thought of attention this way.

In 1890, when the psychologist, William James, gave a definition of attention, he described it as, “taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”
How to switch from managing time to managing attention?

Here are some of the suggestions I’ve collected so far and I hope you’ll comment to let me know your suggestions:
1. Each evening or morning before you start your day, make a short list of your intentions (the result and feeling of something you want) for the day and by each, write the related to do’s for that day. Try to keep your list to 5 intentions. Consciously choose what you will do and what you will not do. Keep a different list of what you will review for inclusion on other days.
2. List only what you really expect to do that day. As other things come to mind, write them on a separate list. By putting these items on a separate list, you are creating the space to be in the moment with each of your day’s priorities. Review that list as you plan for the next day and determine how they fit in to your plans. Give yourself some down time, enjoy your successes at the end of the day.
3. Give yourself meaningful blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on each intention. Turn OFF technology each day during those blocks and focus on your intentions.
4. At home, be clear about what technology you’ll use and where. Computer in the kitchen? Maybe not. A friend of mine just removed the computer from her kitchen and said she is now far less likely to stop to constantly check email or news. In the kitchen, she pays attention to her family and prepares food. Sometimes they do group family activities at the kitchen table. When she heads into her office to work on her computer, her children know not to disturb her while she works.

Untethered technology gives us the freedom to do nearly anything, anytime, anywhere. It can also enslave us – we feel compelled to use it where ever it is. Technology is neutral. How, when and where we use it is up to us.

How about you? Do you manage your time? Your attention? Or both? How? What advice would you offer?

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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