“Attention Must Be Paid”

As I have continued to pursue my Summer School reading of Work Simply over the past few weeks, three things have become very clear:

  1. This book is full of simple, practical tips and exercises rather than just advice and theory, which is just what I was looking for. But that also means it’s not a book that can be read through quickly if one is to make the most of it.
  2. Finding time during the workweek to prioritize self-development “homework” amidst all my other daily tasks has not been as easy as I thought it would be.
  3. Finding time to follow-up on that reading and put my thoughts and feelings about it into a blog post feels almost impossible.

I had been hoping to get through about 20 pages a day in this book, which is a pretty modest goal; I often read as much as 50 pages a day for a book I’m really into. But I didn’t take into account the difference between merely reading a book vs. studying a book. The whole point of this project is to be learning and improving, taking notes from the text and applying ideas, which actually makes Work Simply a great place to start.

This book is full of exercises and questions for the reader to use for making decisions, learning from, and then building on in chapters that follow, but that means taking time to follow through and try the exercises. And finding that time to do these exercises is something I wasn’t prepared for. It took some time, probably longer than it should have, but l think I’ve finally worked the reading portion of Summer School into my routine, and found a way to get the homework portion (these blog updates) into my daily habits as well. And I really owe that to the first big quote I’ve pulled from this book:

“You have to notice that your attention has wandered in order to do something about it.”

I often know when I’m being distracted. It’s easy to catch myself wandering off the task at hand because something else pops into my head or there is an external interruption. But I’ve never thought to see if there was a pattern there.

That’s why I love the attention awareness exercise in Chapter Four of this book that suggests keeping a log of what is distracting during a day, or part of a day, and see what trends and themes emerge. I tried this and wasn’t really surprised by how much my attention was distracted (the first step of fixing a problem is admitting you have one)…

squirrel-up-dog-gif

but I was surprised by how few types of distractors I had. Almost all of the moments I noted being pulled away from a task fit into one of three categories: calendar obligations (meetings and appointments), interruptions (phonecalls or coworkers coming by my office), and probably my biggest distractor, internet wormholes, which is the only way I can think of to categorize those sudden tangental shifts that start with a specific purpose but quickly lead to extended excursions of link clicking.

For example, even just as I’ve been trying to write this summary, when I decided it would be fun to include that link up above to a GIF of the dog from “Up”, I lost half an hour because I left my plain text editor app and went to my web browser, which happened to be full of tabs I had meant to close, which meant I was suddenly looking at all those tabs I wanted to close (which felt productive because I was cleaning up clutter, right?), and then of course I ended up reading some of what was in those tabs I had wanted to read… and within thirty seconds I was off in another complete train of thought for thirty minutes when really I should have just put in a place holder for a link I could get later and kept on writing.

I knew this happened to me a lot, but according to my attention logs I can see this happened on an average of four to six times for at least 15 minutes at a time, often longer, every day over the week I was tracking it. That means as much as two productive hours of attention lost every day on internet wormholes. Maybe even more.

And sure, within a whole day, that’s proably not unusual. And there are certainly times when that kind of free thought exploration can help good ideas and insights develop, stimulate creative work, and improve my skills. But if that’s the goal, it should be a structured, focused activity in itself, not a random journey down infinite branching paths.

This exercise was an eye opener, and I highly recommend it. Only by cultivating awareness of your attention can you really understand and identify the trending distractors, and then set specific goals to target them.

My take away from this chapter: measure and track your attention to understand the problem areas. Then you can begin, as Tate puts it, to “optimize the physiological conditions necessary for ideal attention management.” From there you can learn to reboot your brain and refocus to get back on track.

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