Anthony Zhou

Psychology, Economics, Programming, or anything interesting.

Managing time vs. managing attention

Difference between managing time and managing attention.

We often hear the refrain: “I don’t have time for this!” In reality, what this often means is: “I don’t have enough attention for this.” For people whose schedules are flexible — like students — the latter case is more often true. That is, time is not our limiting factor; attention is.

So we come to reframe certain decisions. For example, consider the decision of driving to work versus walking to work. Both activities occupy your time, but only one — driving — occupies your attention. A more extreme case is taking walks for the sake of walking. You would think that taking time away from work would decrease your productive output, but these walks can actually increase your output, by replenishing your ability to focus.

Many people recognize this truth. That’s why we take breaks even when we have lots of work to do. What is less obvious, though, is the flip side of this premise. If you believe that attention is the limiting factor, then you would start prioritizing tasks based on the attention they demand, rather than the time commitment involved. For example, washing the dishes demands time, but not attention. Planning a social event might not take lots of time, but it tends to take more attention — for example, you might have to respond to text messages every few hours leading up to the event.

You can often trade attention for time, and vice versa. For example, optimizing your dishwashing routine (plates first, then forks? Using a bowl to store soap water?) will probably save you time, but cost more attention. Running an inefficient computer program saves you from spending attention to optimize it, but takes more time. Being able to trade attention for time prompts a new kind of decision: when should you make the trade?

One way to make this trade is by optimizing for learning. Attentional activities tend to teach you more than mindless ones do. However, if we assume that attention gets used up over time, then it makes sense to maximize attention on things we care about learning. For me, this often involves writing or programming, but any attentional task should suffice.

Perhaps, instead of asking if we have time for something, we should be asking if we have attention.

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