The New York Times apparently wants us all to be more productive, since it’s hammering away at the subject from many fronts. In one article, Charlotte Lieberman tells us that procrastination isn’t about self-control but about negative emotions. In another, Adam Grant suggests that productivity isn’t about time management, but about attention.
Both articles circle around the same central idea: That our ability to get stuff done is deeply entangled with our emotional and attentional systems (yes, the “attentional system” is a thing, see below).
Lieberman points to research showing that procrastination is “about being more focused on ‘the immediate urgency of managing negative moods’ than getting on with the task…” She offers mindful/tactical approaches to reducing procrastination such as attending to the emotions behind your impulses, focusing only on the “next task” rather than the whole journey, and making your primary procrastination paths less convenient to you (more complex passwords on social media, for example).
Grant also considers attention as a path to increase output and avoid distracting sandtraps. But for him, it’s about finding the things that animate and activate you rather than hammering away at time management. “Prioritize the people and projects that matter,” he says, “and it won’t matter how long anything takes.” (To which I might say: It matters to your boss.)
Also worth noting is a recent study of trained musicians, which found that they have greater “executive control” of their attention than do non-musicians, suggesting that attention can be developed in meaningful and measurable ways. According to lead investigator Paulo Barraza, Ph.D.:
Professional musicians are able to more quickly and accurately respond to and focus on what is important to perform a task, and more effectively filter out incongruent and irrelevant stimuli than non-musicians. In addition, the advantages are enhanced with increased years of training…
All three articles focus on one aspect of the “attentional system,” the “executive control function,” which is “involved both in the suppression of irrelevant, distracting stimuli and in top-down attentional control.” The other two functions of the attentional system (the alerting function, which maintains our state of readiness for action, and the orienting function, which selects sensory information and shifts our attentional focus) are less affected by musical training.
For me, it’s useful to know there’s an executive control function related to my attention, and to know it’s in the middle of an emotional maze. It’s also useful to wonder how organizational leaders might make that maze a bit more navigable, or a bit less fraught, for all of the attentive humans working under their care.