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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.

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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    Last Updated on October 15, 2019

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why we procrastinate after all

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    So, is procrastination bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How bad procrastination can be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article:

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    8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

    Procrastination, a technical failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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