Advertising
Advertising

Routing the Yin and Yang of Attention and Distraction

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.

    Advertising

    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!).

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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?

    More by this author

    How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage 19 Free GTD Apps for Windows, Mac & Linux 32 Hacks for Sticking to Your Budget

    Trending in Featured

    1The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) 240 Top Productivity Apps for iPhone (2018 Updated) 3How to Overcome Procrastination and Start Doing What Matters 4Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed 5The Gentle Art of Saying No

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

    Advertising

    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

    Advertising

    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

    Advertising

    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

    Advertising

    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Read Next