CTO Compass

How to fix your time and attention leaks

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Do you get to the end of a day and wonder where your time went?

Are most of your days like that? Mine certainly were. Now I know exactly where my time went on any given day; I know what my kryptonite is and what helps me keep it at bay so I can do more of what’s important.

The first step is to understand where you’re currently spending your days. Peter Drucker, in his seminal classic, The Effective Executive, said:

A good many effective executives keep such a log continuously and look at it regularly every month. At a minimum, effective executives have the log run on themselves for three to four weeks at a stretch twice a year or so on a regular schedule. After each such sample, they re-think and re-work their schedule. But six months later, they invariably find that they have ‘drifted’ into wasting their time on trivia. Time use does improve with practice, But only constant efforts at managing time can prevent drifting.

This tedious but essential activity is worth doing if you’re serious about being more effective and creating time to work on the most important things that move you and your organisation forward.

The first time I read that paragraph, I completely glossed over the first sentence, paying more attention to the minimum requirement; after all, who wants to do the mind-numbing recording of time and activity more than necessary? Yawn.

As a technologist, my first inclination is to automate it. A plethora of apps purport to make it trivial to track what you’re doing. Guess what? They’re not that effective. As with anything, if you’re trying to avoid doing the necessary real work, when you put no effort in the results you get back are unlikely to give you anything actionable to work with. Applications which track your computer activity can tell you that you had Slack as your frontmost window for so many minutes. Great, but they can’t tell you what you were actually doing. Were you slacking off all day, or were you having meaningful discussions that moved projects forward? Maybe it was just the top-most app while you were working away from your desk.

Similarly, writing entries like “10:37 am writing emails” and “11:13 Making a coffee” on paper doesn’t give you much more to work with either.

Switching task with intention

Drucker’s first sentence finally clicked for me when I read about an idea from Tony Stubbledine that he called Interstitial Journaling. The entire article is well worth reading, but his key insight is to journal each time you switch tasks (or, as he calls them in the article, projects).

Whenever you switch task, some of your attention remains on the prior task–known as the Attention Residue Effect– and, particularly when the task is intensely demanding, it decreases your performance on the next.

By writing down what you’re still thinking about from the project you’ve just completed, you empty your mind and drain the attention residue. Then, you prime yourself for the next project and thinking about the first action you will take. If you can make this a habit, it will pay you back in spades.

In my own practice, I prefer to note the start time and then add a dash, leaving an open loop for me to close when I complete the project. It encourages me to add the time I finish the entry, giving me a more complete picture of my time. When you only add a starting timestamp, there’s an assumption that the next one is when you switched. I can guarantee that, especially in the early days of habituating it, you will forget to come back to your journal, and so you’re missing out on valuable data.

If I come back to my journal late, I leave it hanging and start the new time entry with a little note of whatever I remember doing and why. When I review everything at the end of the day, it helps to remind me how distracted I was so I can more actively learn from it.

Use a timer to help you grease the groove. When it goes off, switch over to your journal and note how you feel or anything else that’s on your mind right now (maybe it’s related to the task at hand, or maybe it’s something else entirely). Or perhaps it’ll jolt you enough to realise that you already switched tasks and you forgot to journal in between.

Interstitial Journaling (IJ) is a very simple practice, but it is also one of the most impactful habits in my toolbox. As humans, we are notoriously bad at estimating how long something takes. We are also pretty poor at planning too. With practice, you’ll start to see how you really spend your time, both productively and unproductively, and it helps shine a light on the work you do and how long it actually takes. As my friend Tracy Winchell put it, you will begin to ‘see your time and attention leaks’. And when you can see them in black and white in front of you, it’s far easier to formulate strategies to tackle and improve them.

In future blogs, I’ll share some more of the nuance and other benefits that you can derive from this practice.


⚡️ Thinking Time ⚡️

To help get you started with Interstitial Journaling, consider using these questions as prompts when you journal.

Wrapping up the current project

  • What have I just worked on?
  • How am I feeling right now?
  • Is there anything about this project I am still thinking about?
  • What is the next action I need to take on this project?

Getting started on the next project

  • What am I about to work on?
  • What is the first action I need to take?
  • How should I approach getting this project done?
  • How am I feeling about it?

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