Reclaiming Time in an Attention Economy

Do you remember how slowly time seemed to pass when you were a kid longing to be an adult? Now, in middle age, time seems to be accelerating. Either time is truly moving faster, or our relationship to time undergoes drastic changes as our lives evolve. But what I know without a doubt is that time is precious—for every person, and especially for entrepreneurs.

These days, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the incessant waves of content washing in from every possible source. In a time where distractions are at an all-time high, it can be difficult for entrepreneurs to complete objectives and expand a business—even more so when every task feels equally important.

If we’re not mindful, it’s easy for our time to get swept away, lost in the white noise rather than devoted to the things that maximize our impact. This makes the practice of time management paramount for modern entrepreneurs.

An evolving relationship with time

I first became conscious of time when I worked for a CEO of a very large, privately-held company straight out of college. I saw how deliberately he managed his time—how he made conscious decisions every day, down to the minute—in order to successfully run his business. He was able to manage so much and keep track of so many things, yet he still had energy for what was important to him.

No minute was wasted; every minute was maximized. His intentional practices set an early benchmark for me, which I have continued to strive for since.

Years later, an unexpected event transformed my relationship with time again. When my close friend died unexpectedly weeks before her wedding, I felt a new, stark reality: we can never truly know how much time we have left. I became more mindful of how I was spending my time and with whom, and to what end.

Despite my time awareness, I recently noticed how much of my own productivity was being stolen by the attention economy. And I embarked on yet another journey, to reclaim my time.

The art, and discipline, of reclaiming time

The attention economy places pressing—or seemingly pressing—demands on entrepreneurs every day. Simply put, our time and attention are being bombarded, indeed stolen. The attention factor is perhaps the most insidious, as there is no end to the information and content that can be consumed. And as Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology warns us in his newly posted TED talk, if we don’t put a cap on the time we spend on content absorption, we can easily spend all our time reading, watching and consuming media feeds showing what other people are doing, instead of living our own life. We can also quickly find ourselves in a false sense of “beating time”—that if we move faster, we can do more. But for what, and to what end?

Reclaiming time is a process and a discipline. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it requires continuous, daily mindful awareness. And although I’m still working to master this art, I can attest to how much time consciousness enhances the journey, both as an entrepreneur and human.  

Being intentional about slowing down, taking time to be present for your life and giving your precious attention to things that really matter will slow time down and bring us back to rhythms that are more human in scale.  Reclaiming time will reduce stress and give us perspective. And more importantly, it will bring the awareness that time as we know it is a construct—something that we’ve created, as if it is independent from our nature and the natural systems of which we are all a part. That is the fallacy of our current relationship with time.

Strategies for a better relationship with time

Reclaiming time starts with a personal commitment to setting a boundary for what—and how much—we’re willing to consume or be distracted by technology or other non-essential activities. Once you draw your line in the sand, you’ll be surprised how quickly you realize that busyness is overrated. The seas of content beckoning your attention pale in comparison to what’s going on inside your heart, soul, mind and body.

As you work to reclaim your time, ask yourself these questions:

  • How am I spending my time? Who am I spending it with?

  • If I didn’t have much time left to live, how might my priorities shift?

  • Am I optimizing my performance on high-value tasks during the times when I have the most energy? (Tony Schwartz and his team at The Energy Project can help you answer this question)

  • Am I busy just for the sake of being busy, or because it sounds good to say that?

Once you’ve explored these questions honestly, try these strategies for slowing down time:

  • Limit social media and the consumption of news to once per day

  • Practice meditation (The Open Heart Project is a good starting point)

  • Focus your breathing through technology such as BreatheSync

  • Avoid the urge to multi-task

We need to take back our time, reclaim our energy and devote ourselves to things that enhance our wellbeing—not spend our time on things other people feel are important. This is a difficult discipline in today’s attention economy, but with training and practice, you can focus on the things that make you happier and more productive.