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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.

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    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!).

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on March 25, 2020

    How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes effectively.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    1. Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    2. Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    3. Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    4. Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    5. Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    6. Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    7. Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    8. Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More Note-Taking Tips

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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