Transparent Language Blog

Attention Management vs. Time Management for Language Learners Posted by on Dec 10, 2018 in Archived Posts

Productivity is typically associated with time. How long does a task take? How much can you get done in a certain amount of time? Could you do it faster—and thereby be more productive?

Managing time alone is no longer enough. With the entire world at our fingertips, time management has met its match: endless distractions. Author David Kadavy presents an alternative:

“Productivity is about mind management, not time management, and while simple tools — such as to-do items — are useful, they don’t account for the shortcomings of real human behavior.”

Language learners can likely relate. One hour of hyper-focused study during which your mind feels unclouded and free of distraction is surely a more productive use of your time than two hours during which you stop every five minutes to read your email or check your Facebook notifications. To assure you’re doing more of the former than the latter, you need to manage your attention, not just your time.

attention management

That moment when one device distracts you from another device. (Image via Pexels)

Why does time management fail us?

Time management should be straightforward: dedicate a specific chunk of time to each task so you can structure your day and fit in everything you need to accomplish. How productive!

But as Kadavy points out, real human behavior has its shortcomings—estimating, scheduling, and spending time wisely are no exception.

Our state of mind can impact our perception of time, and thus our productivity.

Did you ever have a dreadful college class where you glanced at the clock every five minutes thinking surely, it’s been twenty minutes since you last looked? Or have you ever fallen into the YouTube black hole, watching video after video for fifteen minutes, only to realize it’s actually been an hour? Our mood affects our perception of time.

Your mood can impact your productivity, too. Sometimes writers feel “in the flow” and can bleed on their typewriters like Hemingway all day long; other days when they are stressed or having other things on their mind, writer’s block takes hold. There’s no telling how long writing a few pages may take. Likewise, there’s no telling how long it may take to read a few pages of a French novel or memorize a few dozen new Korean phrases.

You’ll likely accomplish more in an hour on a good day than an hour on a bad day. It’s why some productivity experts like Daniel Gold recommend tracking your moods in addition to tracking time:

“Write down how you spent your minutes and keep notes on how you felt. Be honest. Sometimes you can identify that you feel “on a roll,” which is a good sign that you’re figuring out something about your productivity. So is feeling like you’d really like a nap.”

Time spent on a task may not be spent on task.

There is no retreat from the outside world anymore. Technology lets our colleagues, our friends, and even our favorite brands tag along wherever we go: work, school, the gym, the car, the checkout line, and even on airplanes that now offer free Wi-Fi. Even 35,000 feet up and stuck in a tiny airplane seat, we cannot get away from constant distractions.

Blocking off two hours to study Thai is no longer an effective means on time management. Those two hours are too susceptible to distraction. You could disconnect—but what if you’re learning online? And simply removing the source of the distraction doesn’t remove the habit. We are conditioned—addicted, even—to being constantly interrupted:

“The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification creates something called a ‘compulsion loop.’ Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect.”

attention management against distractions

Image via Pexels

It is time to pivot from time management to attention management.

A 2010 study by two Harvard psychologists found that “people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing.”

In a world where so many parties are vying for our attention, how do we manage it? Fortunately, your brain can be trained to do so—and there are tools to help.

Multi-task less.

If you’re a serial multi-tasker, you’ve trained your brain to switch tasks often. When it comes to focusing on just one important task, your brain is just waiting for a self-interruption. Focus on one task at a time—prioritizing tasks that require the most creativity or brain power before mindless tasks.

If you’re reading a German news article, looking up new words in the dictionary, and creating flashcards of those words, you are leaving a lot of transition time between those tasks during which you could be distracted or let your mind wander. Highlight the words as you are reading, then look them all up when you’re done.

If you’re learning online, consider Hocus Focus, which hides all inactive windows to encourage you to have only one open window. You can even create different profiles with different settings depending on what you’re doing: researching, writing, or studying a language. (Sadly, this is only available on Mac—if you have a PC recommendation, let us know!)

Control your connections.

Speaking of learning online, some of the most valuable language learning resources are online, so we can’t recommend disconnecting on “unplugging” as a way to control focus. But we do recommend controlling how connected you are.

If you can’t stay away from social media while learning online, consider StayFocusd. This Google Chrome extension limits the amount of time spend on “time-wasting websites”. When you reach your daily limit, you can’t access the site (or page, or in-page content, or whatever rule you specify) until the next day. Not ready to actually block yourself? Try Mindful Browsing, another extension that gently nudges you away from time-wasting sites.

Control your environment.

You know what’s as distracting as push notifications or texts? Background noise. You hear the mailman, so you must go check the mail right now. The person at the next desk keeps sneezing, and it interrupts you every time.

Invest in a nice pair of headphones. If your favorite tunes are just another distraction, consider services like, Focus@will, or Noisli. The first two provide “focus-boosting soundtracks”, tailored to your musical preferences and productivity needs. The last, Noisli, provides ambient noise so you can create your ideal study environment. All three are available on iOS, Android, and web.

Take breaks.

Seems counterintuitive—a break is a distraction, right? On the contrary, “prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.” If a stimulus doesn’t change over time, the brain stops registering it and you lose focus.

We recommend studying in short, consistent bursts. Start with 25-30 minutes a day, every day. Otherwise, you risk burning out or spending time studying when your brain is elsewhere. If you choose to study in longer blocks—such as in a formal classroom setting—take breaks!

Don’t just take any old break, though. You can do better than eating chips and scrolling Instagram. Aim for high efficiency breaks like a short walk or yoga routine.

Don’t trust yourself to take breaks? There are many apps out there to support the Pomodoro technique, which involves breaking work or study time into 25-minute chunks of intense work, followed by 5- or 10-minute breaks. The very simple Tomato Timer website can facilitate this schedule for you.

Time management techniques were created for another, well, time.

Our environments, pace of life, and access to constant distraction require new attention management techniques as well. This is particularly true for those learning a language, a skill that is never fully learned and requires long-term sustainment efforts.

How do you manage your attention and focus while studying a language? Meditation? Exercise and healthy eating? Share your advice below!

Feeling focused enough to learn a language online? Learn more about the CL-150, our professional language training platform, and Transparent Language Online, our language learning platform for schools, libraries, and individuals.

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  1. Michelle Doll:

    Here is a practical tip from a non-medicated ADD adult. I improved my attention span by learning to practice mindfulness meditation. Not meditating on my navel, or some fantasy (although I use those kinds of meditations also for specific purposes), but on my current surroundings.
    Here is a short how-to: Become aware of your breathing, your heartbeat, your skin, your emotions, then expand your awareness from there. What can you hear, smell, taste, see, feel? Using all your senses, really plug into the world around you. Hold this attention for as long as you can, letting your thoughts drift past. If you lose your focus, gently bring your attention back to your senses, keeping your thoughts on what is NOW, not past or future. You might manage a minute or two at first, but with practice can hold it for hours(!).
    Doing this throughout your day, every time you think of it, is great practice for focusing your attention. Do this especially when you eat, when you speak to someone, when you learn something, as you exercise.
    BTW, studies have shown that multitasking simply ensures that you don’t get anything done efficiently or well. It is unavoidable at times (like when you take your three kids to the park and they all run in different directions), but focussing all your attention of one thing at a time is better in terms of how much you actually accomplish. You will feel less stress, be more attentive to your spouse/ co-workers/ boss/, and have more time to do what you need/want. I hope this helps!
    Keep up the good work. I really like your blog & website, and you make excellent points! 🙂

  2. Andre:

    I enjoyed reading this article because it presents a fresh perspective on how to make the most of your efforts. I have struggled with “productivity” and none of the “Time Management” books and articles I’ve read (and there have been many) have raised the issues presented in this article.

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