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How to Stay Focused at Work with an ‘Attention Charter’

Have it all, be it all, and do it all. When it comes to work, sometimes it can seem like the only path to success.

You find yourself putting in more hours, downloading cool new apps, and doing your best to keep up with social media. Does this sound familiar?

The risk of burnout is very real. It’s easy to say “yes” too often and end up overwhelmed. Instant connectivity through phones and computers has only cranked up the pressure.

You need to invest your attention wisely to get ahead. But how do you prioritize a swirl of competing priorities without driving yourself crazy?

An attention charter can help.

What is an Attention Charter and Why Should You Create One?

An attention charter, popularized by Georgetown University professor and author Cal Newport, is a document that sets out which things you’ll allow to claim your attention, how often, and under which circumstances.

It takes some effort to create these guidelines. But once you do, you’re no longer left to flounder whenever something comes along demanding your attention right now. Instead of reacting in the moment—and often losing sight of what’s truly important—you follow your charter.

This helps you to be more intentional with your time. Setting limits can be scary, but it can lead to better results. You might spend fewer hours a week working, but find that a greater portion of your time is spent focusing proactively on what actually matters.

Because you hopefully won’t be grinding away for so many hours, the time you don’t spend working can become more productive. It’s easier to get stuff done when you have time to sleep well, take care of yourself, and maintain healthy relationships!

How to Create an Attention Charter for Work

how to create an attention charter for work

Your attention charter is a list of guidelines to help you weigh competing priorities.

Before we go any further, a quick note on what an attention charter is not. It doesn’t need to be a blanket ban on certain activities. Emails, phone calls, and meetings are inevitable. They aren’t as fun as designing new products or focusing on the big picture, but in the right dose, they’re vital for making your visions a reality.

For example, you might limit yourself to:

  • Only attend meetings with a 30-minute time limit and a clearly defined agenda
  • Not respond to text messages between 9 and 5 (or whenever your work hours are) unless it’s during a lunch break or an emergency
  • Not access a certain group of websites (celebrity gossip, social media, etc.) during work hours
  • Meet professional contacts for coffee no more than twice a month
  • Travel to one industry conference a quarter

These guidelines can be as general or specificas you like. Notice how the examples above aren’t too strict. They allow for certain exceptions or situations where you would want to engage in the activities. It’s not about banning things; it’s about being more intentional with our choices.

You could type up your attention charter on a word processor, note-taking app, or even go old school with pen and paper. The main thing is to think through the different ways you could limit distractions—and get them down for reference later.

Radhika Nagpal, a computer science professor, used some of these principles to earn tenure at Harvard. She calculated the maximum number of hours she could devote to her career each week without neglecting her family. Working from that limit, she created rules for herself (like traveling only five times a year) that allowed her to advance her career without getting burned out by unimportant distractions.

Enforcing Your Attention Charter

How to stay focused at work

Once you’ve created your attention charter, it’s time to put it into action. Those guidelines won’t do you any good tucked away in a drawer or gathering dust on a hard drive!

If you’re an employee with a demanding boss, you might find it tougher to stick to an attention charter than an entrepreneur who can set his or her own schedule. That’s okay. Do the best you can. The point is to exercise control where we do have it. Just a few better choices each day really add up.

You might have to confront some bad habits you’ve been struggling with for a while now (hello, fellow Twitter buffs!) Willpower will get you started, but when it fizzles, tools will keep you on track. Grammarly can help improve your written communication, so you can spend less time worrying about whether or not your important email is worded and spelled correctly. Website blocking apps like Freedom empower you to block distracting websites, apps, or even the entire internet during hours when you need to be productive. Once apps like these are up and running, set up recurring blocks of time to enforce your attention charter.

There’s no shame in starting small. After you become comfortable with a few guidelines, you can gradually add more. Your attention charter can—and probably will—evolve with time. That’s a perfectly natural part of the process.

Make Better Choices—Without the Burnout

how to Avoid overwhelm at work
Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

A work day can feel a lot like a marathon game of tug-of-war. You’re stuck in the middle, doing your best to hang on while demands for attention yank you every which way.

Fortunately, an attention charter will help you choose which battles to fight without relying on willpower in the moment.

How do you manage competing priorities? Do you have a set of rules for yourself to follow? Leave a comment below and let us know!