TEA: Time, Effort and Attention


Time, Effort and Attention. Everyone needs to pay attention to all three.

In our always-connected society, it can seem impossible to get anything done. Distractions are everywhere. It’s even worse for designers. Multitasking, meetings, and constant interruptions wreak havoc on creative flow every day.

When you were in school, did your teachers ever admonish you to “Pay attention”? Mine sure did.

Attention is our most valuable currency. It’s what leads to understanding and action. Without attention, nothing will ever happen. We must constantly pay attention to family matters, finances and work projects. You get the idea.

While your time is certainly limited, how you spend your attention makes all the difference.

So how do you slay the distraction dragon? First identify what it is that’s distracting you. Then eliminate as much as possible.

Remove Self-Inflicted Distractions

While distractions may seem like they are generated from the outside world, most are self-inflicted. For example, do you really HAVE to open that email because the little red circle with a number is on your phone? Do you really HAVE to respond to that Slack message right now because you heard the Pavlovian notification sound? No and no.

People can wait. They really can. Learn to let them.

Set Boundaries and Stick To Them

Next, what sort of guardrails can you put in place to protect your true priorities?

Just like distractions, you first need to know what your priorities are. Then relentlessly defend them.

As a working mom, I’ve faced this every day for over 16 years. In my world, family comes first, then work. In order for that to happen I’ve had to define some pretty clear boundaries over the years. Here are some of them:

1. Family First. My husband and daughter’s needs are always at the top of the list. Always. Everything else can wait. It’s the big reason I started my own business 13 years ago. Since I work part time, I start my day at 9am and end at 2pm. This is by far the toughest boundary to defend. It doesn’t always work exactly that way, but it does work about 80% of the time.

2. Work On The Business. For me there is no business without clients. While it sounds counterintuitive, working on the business vs. in the business must come before client work. Having a thriving business allows me to serve clients much better. It lets me truly focus on helping them instead of wondering where my next paycheck will come from.

3. Focus Sprints for Deep Work. I’m writing this email right now during a 55-minute focus sprint. My door is closed. My phone, email, and Slack are all turned off. It’s the only way this will get done and out to you this week. I used to try and schedule focused work sessions rigorously first thing every day, but that doesn’t work for me since my schedule is rarely consistent.

Pay Attention with Focus Sprints

Now I have a simple goal: accomplish at least 2 focus sprints every day. When they happen doesn’t matter as much as making sure they do happen 🙂

Focus sprints have really helped me get back on track. If you work in an office and struggle to get deep work done, try booking a meeting with yourself on your calendar, close your door if you have an office or hide out in a conference room if you don’t.

Even better, get outside or go to the local coffee shop for a change of scene.

Add Buffer Time To Your Schedule

Back-to-back meetings are a total productivity killer. Don’t schedule them. There’s no way to process new information when you are rushing from meeting to meeting all day long only to come back to an inbox filled with dozens or hundreds of notifications.

You need room to breathe and time to focus, so add it into your schedule.

I’ve been a lot happier since I started routinely adding transition and buffer time into my calendar. It makes it almost impossible to get overbooked these days.

And while it helps to know how long something is going to take, endless rabbit holes appear more often for designers and developers on a tight schedule. When making estimates of any kind, always double them. That will give you some buffer against the unknown (see above).

How To Have More Time, Effort and Attention, or “TEA”

It starts with intention. It starts as soon as you become aware that you might need to pay attention to this issue. How do you manage distractions in your life?

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