"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
0 items in your cart
$0
Blog // Thoughts
June 11, 2008

Attention, Distraction And Interruption

Good piece in today’s NYT Shifting Careers column entitled Attention Must Be Paid, quoting Maggie Jackson’s book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. “… the enigma of attention has just begun to be mapped, tracked and decoded by neuroscientists who now consider attention to be a trio of skills — focus, […]

Good piece in today’s NYT Shifting Careers column entitled Attention Must Be Paid, quoting Maggie Jackson’s book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.

“… the enigma of attention has just begun to be mapped, tracked and decoded by neuroscientists who now consider attention to be a trio of skills — focus, awareness and executive attention. Think of it this way: You can be “aware” that you’re in a beautiful garden and then you can “focus” on an individual flower. The last piece, “executive attention,” is the ability to plan and make decisions.

Learning about the nature and mechanisms of attention has been life-changing for me. Sometimes I hopscotch distractedly through the Net. It’s fun. But now, if I’m wrestling with a problem or really want to connect with someone, I turn off the ringers, collect my racing mind and find the time/space to focus. No important business calls while hurrying through airports –- it’s not worth it.

We are born interrupt-driven -– that’s how humans stay tuned to their environment. But if we jump on every e-mail or ping, we’ll have trouble pursuing our long-term goals. To make inroads on the deep, messy work of life, we need to stay focused, bringing the spotlight of our attention back again and again to the work at hand.”

Attention, distraction and interruption have become recurring themes for me over the past eighteen months. It’s clear that we need to move beyond the idea of multitasking, towards what might best be described as serial monotasking. It’s also clear that whilst interruptions are a part of life and maybe even an important conduit to creativity, we need to separate out the interruptions that flow out of our work from the distractions that take our minds away from work (or relationships, or whatever is the project at hand).

The challenge is to find a way to manage the interruptions in our day, relearn the habits that help us focus our attention and unplug form the things that breed distraction without becoming a recluse, hermit or misanthrope. When “Time Management” became all the rage in the late 80s and early 90s, many folks responded by making themselves hard to reach and hard to book appointments with. It was as if the best way to manage time was to lock it in a cupboard and throw away the key. Talk to people about commitments and all the responses were about how much time they didn’t have (a circular argument many people are still trapped by) and all the times in their week when they would not be available. It’s a great strategy if your goal in life is to seem aloof, arrogant and disparaging of those who want to work with you.

I’ve got more questions that answers on this topic. However, there are a few “life-hacks” that I’ve been working with to try and teach myself to be more attentive and to encourage creative and productive interruptions to flow.

– Read articles, essays and chapters in full. Don’t start one if there is not a good chance of finishing and put off anything else (including note taking) till the reading is done.
– Upon entering a room in the house, stay there for at least two minutes. If the reason for entering the room was small (like putting a glass back in the kitchen), spend the full two minutes finishing the task properly, then look for another productive task.
– Have one inbox.
– When tidying up the desk after a day’s work, leave it ready for the first task of the next day (set up notepad and paper, or microphones, or tablet/drumpad/other peripheral, etc.).
– Don’t tidy up or organise what you can throw out.
– Use Coffee as a reward, not a stimulus.
– Push a little harder on small tasks. If I’ve written 500 good words, try for 750. If I’ve done half of a music chart, or arranging a part, try to finish it now rather than leave it for later. If I’m chopping vegetables for lunch, then why not chop dinner’s ingredients right now?
– Always set the working space up like you mean to stay there for at least an hour. Get lighting, temperature right before starting. Keep diary, notepad and so on handy at all times and unplug from all but emergency communications.

Anyway, here are some other posts on this journey,

It turns your mac into a typewriter
Mis En Place – The ready state for cooking and maybe also for creativity and spirituality
The 100% correlation
Intellectual compost
And some other stuff worth checking out
What Getting Things Done has taught me

[tags] GTD, Productivity, Monotasking, Attention, Distraction [/tags]

Leave a comment

Enter your and your to join the mailing list.