I watched a girl shop for dresses in class this morning. It was an odd thing to watch: she’d scroll through a few dresses, look up and take notes, scroll through dresses, take notes, and this went on for about an hour. As I sat there occasionally watching her, I thought about how we’ve become very bad at being mentally engaged. If you walk around and watch people in their day to day lives, they’re usually in a state of split attention attending to at least two things at the same time–sometimes more. I talked about this in my post on social media, but there’s a huge problem with split attention: you can’t multitask, and any attempt to do so makes you significantly less effective at both of the tasks you’re engaged in.
Part of the reason this happens is that we only have so many attentional “bits” that we can allocate at any given time. Think of them as units of memory on your computer–your computer can only handle so many tasks at a given time, and when you try to overload it it will either crash or have to stop one of the programs. Your mind is the same way. A conversation for example requires a bit over half of these bits of data, which is why it’s very difficult to have an in-person conversation with two people on separate topics at the same time.
But here’s where we differ from a computer: we actually operate best when we’re as close as possible to our maximum amount of attention without going over. When we’re fully engaged in a task we enter a state of flow where time seems to melt away and we perform at our highest capacity. But it requires that our attentional bandwidth is fully engaged while only attending to one task. If we try to engage our full attention by attending to multiple things (like texting while studying) we become less productive and never enter flow. In fact, all of these common things can reduce your attentional allocation:
Group work is a prime example of this. Depending on the size of the group, odds are that at least two people in it are talking to each other at any given time. They’re probably talking about something related to the task (even worse if they’re not) and so you’re inclined to attend to their conversation in some small way in case they say something useful. This negatively impacts the amount of time you have left over for the task at hand, and is the main reason that people tend to be less productive in groups.
So don’t listen, right? Well there’s a problem with that too–actively disengaging one of our senses is incredibly difficult and will likely tax more of your attention than just listening to it, so you’re screwed either way. You’re always sacrificing some of your attentional allocation by being near other people.
I don’t want to talk about this at length since I already did in my article on social media, but anything that has notifications taxes your attention. Your phone buzzing, Facebook pinging, the numbers that show up in your tab bar on your browser, all of these things require that you attend to them at least briefly and tax the amount of attention you can give to other things. Turn off all of the notifications and close the tabs if you want to focus.
Sometimes you don’t even have the maximum amount of “RAM” to work with. The ability to allocate your full attention only applies in situations where you’re in an ideal energetic state. But there are plenty of mental states that will decrease your attentional RAM, including:
- Being hungry, since hunger will make you more tired and draw your thoughts to food
- Tiredness, since tiredness will cloud your mind and make you think of sleep
- Anger/annoyance, since anger/annoyance will keep pulling your mind back to the cause of the annoyance
- Worry, since being worried about something will keep it on your mind
This is a big part of why Getting Things Done works. The most important idea from it (in my opinion) isn’t the “less than 2? then do” rule as many people claim, but rather the rule that as soon as something comes to mind you write it down. But writing down everything that comes to mind you don’t need to worry about/think about it any more and can come back to it at the appropriate time.
Easy Ways to Get It Back
Luckily, there are a lot of easy things you can do to harness your attention and make sure that you’re fully engaged while only attending to one thing.
White noise/biinaurals/non-lyrical music
All of these help engage your sense of hearing so that you don’t get distracted by other sounds in the environment, but without distracting you by singing along or wanting to stop and listen to the music. The added benefit with binaural beats is that they can supposedly increase your mental ability as well.
You’ve probably heard this idea before that working at a coffee shop can make you more productive, and I agree. The immediate reaction is “Nat, you said groupwork was bad, isn’t a coffee shop a giant group?” No, in a coffee shop there are two important differences: 1) You don’t really care about anyone there, and 2) They’re not talking about things pertinent to you. This makes their noise much less distracting and easy to ignore as a background white-noise. You can even turn a coffee shop into a second office.
I think this goes without saying, but you’ll work better if you’re in a good state of mind and body. This means sleeping sufficiently, eating well, exercising, getting plenty of water, etc. IF you do all of them you’ll have more attention to allocate and be able to get significantly more done.
Removing visual distractions
To the extent that you can, remove everything that can draw your attention in your visual field. This means close out the tabs with notifications, hide your phone, don’t leave snacks by your desk, and if you’re writing/coding etc. do it in fullscreen mode so you don’t see anything else. If you aren’t being bombarded with other things that want your attention, it’s much easier to continue attending to just one thing.