Routing the Yin and Yang of Attention and Distraction
If you’ve been obsessed with the productivity space for any length of time like those of us here at Lifehack, you’ll no doubt have read more than your fill on the topics of attention and distraction. They work together, a bit of a yin and yang, neither inherently bad or unwanted, but both requiring management and balance.
Attention is required to complete creative work—and I don’t mean creative work in terms of just songs, stories and paintings, but anything that requires you to create something and produce a tangible result. It also is required for the effective intake of information.
Distraction is required to keep our minds open to new ideas, or risk it closing down to what we know and lowering the quality of our work in turn, and to allow us a break and recovery from the stressful hours of concentration and sharp direction of attention we put ourselves through. Without distraction, our ability to pay attention and concentrate suffers. And without attention and concentration, there’s simply nothing to be distracted from.
So one must allow time for distraction, but distraction at the wrong time can kill precious hours of work, even precious days, or perhaps even more—which is the unthinkable!
I’ve been thinking about and experimenting with ways to deal with attention and distraction and route the two so that I still can handle both, but at separate times. As a writer, I often go to my feed reader to see what’s trending and hope for a flake of illusory inspiration to alert me to one of the ideas floating through the back of my head (seriously though, waiting for inspiration to strike is a bad thing!).
The problem is that the feeds I enjoy reading for my own pleasure and the feeds I read to keep up with the state of the web, the world and everything, are in one place. So the inevitable happens. I go in to see what the daily trends are in areas such as productivity, audio and technology, which are what I most frequently write about, and end up reading some fantastic blog like Boing Boing or Dark Roasted Blend.
There goes some productive time, just like that. I’m pretty good at flying through the feed reader, though I prefer to look at it as the newspaper you flick through when the urge strikes, so I can ninja through that time, but it’s still time I’d like to—and should’ve—spent working so I could relax and more fully appreciate the enjoyment of reading my favorite sites.
The solution I came up with was to separate the two and create a subscription list filled to the brim with work-relevant feeds, and one with… well, everything and anything else I wanted to read. The great thing is that I can fill my work-related feed reader with as many relevant feeds as I like; there’s no information overload since this is really a skim account where I duck in and out of articles and mark the rest as read when I’ve got my articles done for the day. There’s no need to manage the onslaught of unread articles but with the click of a button that causes many to tremble in fear.
I could’ve created another Google Reader account with which to do this, but I already get frustrated with the need to switch in and out of Google accounts for different roles each day. The plug-ins available aren’t as smooth as I’d like. And it’s too easy to get mixed up and fall into the wrong feed reader at the wrong time with that method. So I decided to fire up the feed reader I used to use every day, NetNewsWire, which I’ve missed in many ways, and use that exclusively for work-related feed reading.
This has a few benefits; I can stop having pathetically geeky arguments in my head about whether I should be using Google Reader or NetNewsWire, because I’m using both. I suppose that’s not really a benefit so much as a way of shutting myself up; it’s a stupid, stupid thing to be conflicted about.
More importantly, the apps are separate. I got to enjoy having my reader in a browser tab, but when you’re writing and looking up source material in twenty different tabs, it helps to have a bit of separation and to more easily find your way around.
But in the end, the choice of application here isn’t the important thing. The important thing is that I’ve implemented a routing of attention and distraction, steering their paths away from each other without sacrificing accessibility and making it difficult to switch from one mode and into the other, and saved myself from that particular rabbit hole.
Where else can you do this sort of thing? I’ve always been a big advocate of having one inbox—in fact, admittedly, since I’ve been using three (a personal account and two work accounts for two separate roles), I feel even more inclined that way. But if you get rabbit-holed by email, it might be good to clearly distinguish and separate your work and personal email into two accounts. I don’t get rabbit-holed by email (even when I had just the one inbox), so I don’t bother here. The time spent setting this system up would simply be lost productive time since there was no problem in the first place.
Another classic example of this practice—one you may not have thought of as being such—is the separation between your home and the office. Keeping them separate does as much good for your work life as it does for your personal life. My office is just off the dining room, which makes coming up with extra ways to separate the two even more important. So I set up signals that tell others how willing to be distracted I am at any given time; door closed means Do Not Disturb Under Pain of Death, three quarters closed means Disturb Only If Necessary, and half-closed means I’m not working on anything requiring much focus and people are free to bug me. I can’t work with a totally open door, so there’s no signal assigned to that one!
The door is almost always closed during “work hours,” whatever that may mean for someone who works at home. My family didn’t like the idea at first but they’ve come to realize that if I was working in a real office, they couldn’t bug and distract me, so when I’m in there with the door closed, there’s no real difference.
This is all about keeping things that need to remain separate, but tend to collide, as far apart as possible. How do you route attention and distraction around each other, and in which areas of your life?
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