How to get things done even when you can’t concentrate: Return on Attention

return on attention

by James Hahn II, {grow} Community Member

Put yourself in 1999.

You just turned 19 years old and got your first “grown-up” job selling furniture. You want to do everything you can to succeed, so you go searching for all of the books, tapes, and advice you can find to be successful.

Brian Tracy, Jeffrey Gitomer, Dale Carnegie. You devour it all in search of that gem that will bring your dreams of world domination into reality. You believe you’ve found it in one simple question:

What’s the best use of my time right now?

For decades this question has haunted me. It seems like a really simple question, and it’s one many personal development and productivity experts advocate.

But here’s the problem: I have ADHD. Serious ADHD.

ADHD: The Entrepreneur’s Superpower

If you’re a fellow entrepreneur, you might be in the same boat. People with ADHD are born entrepreneurs. We get bored easily and we hate doing what people tell us to do. Running our own business is a natural fit for us. The challenges of each new day makes us feel alive, and we don’t have to report to a boss.

But we often struggle. People with ADHD lack “executive functions” in the brain that make prioritizing simple tasks extremely difficult. We are masterful procrastinators.

Heck, I just spent an hour and a half looking at pictures of a trip I took with friends to Muskegon, Michigan in 2007 just to avoid writing this post!

So, you might be able to understand how a question like “What’s the best use of my time right now?” might be a problem for me. Here’s how it plays out.

James, what’s the best use of your time right now?

I don’t know.

You never know. My goodness, what’s wrong with you? Get it together, man!

In other words, the question many leading experts hold up as the gold standard in productivity leads to a moral interrogation of my self-worth. Unlike Folgers in your cup, this is not the best part of waking up!

Return On Attention: Removing Guilt from Productivity

Realizing this has been a long journey of self-discovery. It hasn’t been easy. But, as American opera singer Beverly Sills once said, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”

Today, I’m two years into my second business. Since I went out on my own again in January 2014 I’ve continued to grapple with my task-prioritizing issues. A few months ago, I had a major breakthrough.

“What if I stop focusing on the ‘best’ use of my time? What if, instead of asking a broad question that leads to moral self-judgement, I focused on doing my hardest tasks when I am the most ‘dialed-in’?”

It worked! I left the energy-draining fear of not getting my work done behind and embraced the exhilarating feeling of plowing through tasks like an MDOT truck on a snow bank in February.

I decided to call this new paradigm “Return on Attention.”

Maximizing Your Peak Attention Time

Whether you have ADHD or not, your body has a natural rhythm. You might be a night owl, or you might be an early bird. Either way, you know there is a time of day or night when you are unstoppable.

You know the feeling. This is when you churn content with reckless abandon. Ideas flow through you so fast you could swear you’re channeling Hemingway at a Spanish bullfight in 1932. Sales calls you would usually dread feel as easy as calling to catch up with old friends.

Did I get that TPS report? I WROTE that TPS report!

This is what I call your “peak attention” time. Personally, mine is between 7AM – 11AM. Knowing I have a four-hour window each day to get my hardest work done, I focus on “eating the frog” as quickly as possible.

Any work I get done over and above what I set-out to accomplish is lagniappe. It makes me smile, and ensures I’m productive day-after-day. Instead of days in a row at random intervals weeks apart.

How to Determine Your Hardest Tasks

Depending on your personality, determining which tasks are the “hardest” might be as perplexing for you as it is for me to decide what is the “best” use of my time.

Thankfully, there is a solution, and it’s called Getting Things Done (GTD).

GTD was developed by David Allen over the course of decades. He published his landmark book on the subject in 2002. He recently published an update to address the overwhelming complexity technology has brought into professional’s lives since the first version.

The main premise of GTD is this: you can’t be productive when you try to manage dozens of projects and hundreds of tasks in your brain and email inbox. It’s impossible to be creative if you don’t have any “psychic bandwidth.”

Think of your mind like a computer. When your computer’s memory gets close to capacity, what happens? It slows down and ultimately freezes up.

Have you ever left the office exhausted, and then asked, “What did I even accomplish today?”

You’re experiencing the mental fatigue that comes from a maxed-out mental hard drive. The solution is simple. Get everything out of your mind and into a trusted system.

How do you do that? I just so happened to put together the following tutorial to answer that question.

What about you? How do you maximize your Return on Attention? I’m always looking for ideas to keep my business growing, so please leave your best-practices in the comments!

James Hahn II Founder, Tribe RocketJames Hahn II is the Founder & CEO of Tribe Rocket Inc., a media company that creates “Oil and Gas Stories that Sell”. He is host of the Oil and Gas Careers Podcast and Oil and Gas This Week, the #1 oil and gas podcast in the world. Learn more at or follow James on Twitter@JamesHahnII.


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  • Thanks for sharing so openly, James. A friend suggested once that I work on the things that are most energy taxing when I have the most energy. Energy taxing tasks can be simple ones, they just drain us faster. It really works!

  • It’s so true. Whenever I find myself stuck in overwhelm, it’s inevitably because I let a few dozen (or hundred!) small tasks pile up for a week or two. Whenever I firmly stick to the “2 Minute Rule” my energy and creativity simply flow.

    Thanks for reading! 🙂

  • This is the 2nd time in 2 days someone has referenced my favorite quote and mantra – Eat a Frog. There are just certain things in my day that are so mundane and unsexy that I know if I don’t get them done first thing, I’ll spend my whole day not getting them done and quite often, have to make up that time in the evening when I could be relaxing with the family. Which means it’s the loss of a day. I know if I clear my board of them then I can move on to the things that I like doing the most.. creating!

  • Gotta love serendipity! Eat them frogs, sister!!

  • I agree, it’s like you can already know how productive or unproductive your day will be within those first morning work hours! I also find that focusing on a few important tasks but getting them DONE no matter what has been way better for me than having a million tasks on my to-do list which is not only unrealistic but involves a lot of tasks that don’t have real impact on my job or organisation.

  • Hey Larissa! You mention to-do lists. Curious, have you ever tried GTD?

  • Good points here.I believe everyone has those hours when they function on a peak performance level. It is good to identify those, and maximize those moments.

  • What a great post! I have identified my best time to work, but my desk is littered with notes on things to do and things get lost, postponed, etc. You know what I mean. I was aware of Evernote but never figured out how to use it. I will give it a try.

  • I am currently reading all about it! It looks likeTrello would be perfect for implementing it.

  • Thanks so much, JetAviator7! Get those notes off your desk and into a trusted system. No better feeling than an empty mind … though I somewhat mastered the latter part long ago! 😉

  • In mine right now. Let’s GO!!!

  • Thanks for the post James.

    I started using Trello to prioritize talks and have find it brilliant.

    I have four columns: done, doing today, to be done, one day!

    This allows me to capture random ideas for that ‘one day’ while focusing my ADHD brain on essential tasks!

  • Fantastic, John. Maximize that ROA!!

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