Attentional energy- why it matters more than ever
Updated: Jun 28
Everyone wants clarity of thought and the productivity that usually goes with it.
It typically means a more relaxed state i.e. less stress in the body.
Nowadays though it’s proving more elusive than ever and it’s primarily because of how we manage and are affected by technology.
As Paul Dolan explains in his book Happiness by Design, distraction is damaging because it uses up a lot of attentional energy. Every time we shift our attention our brain has to re-orient itself. Do that often and attentional resources diminish.
While it is of course good for productivity and creativity to take breaks, regular distraction is not so good. Clearly the way technology has pervaded how we both work and play means we’re regularly bombarded by an array of things competing for our attention. Much of which is neither urgent or useful. Yet we tend to respond, and respond often.
Part of the problem is that while multi-tasking is in fact less productive, it can make us feel we’re being more productive. Typically, with multi-tasking we believe we’re doing multiple things at once, but in truth are just switching quickly from task to task. These rapid shifts in attention create mental fog. The effect is not only less productivity but scattered, inefficient thinking which in turn is typically cause for more tension and/or lethargy in the body. [Studies demonstrating all these detrimental effects are referred to in this comprehensive article by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin]
I experienced this during a recent quiet week of face to face work, which meant there wasn’t the usual degree of structure around how I spent my time. I crept into the habit of checking email, Facebook and the weather app way more often than needed. I could feel my mind, mood and productivity drop, yet weirdly it did feel like I was doing stuff, it was as if I was getting informed and prepared. However, in truth, I wasn’t getting much of significance done.
Naturally the solution is to eliminate or at least reduce the distraction. This involves some pretty simple steps, such as: * turning off the phone and/or notifications for email & social media for set periods (or altogether!) * Allocate time specifically for catching up on those emails and social media. * Focus on the task at hand exclusively for a given period e.g. 90 minutes of blog writing with a 10 minute stretch break midway through (not a social media or phone check, but rather a quality break) * You could use this with your leisure time as well, i.e. banish the technology while you exercise or watch a movie. Get into the experience, enjoy the task at hand.
Make it an experiment- see how you feel after an scheduled uninterrupted period of activity as compared to a perhaps normal period of distracted work (or play or conversation).
I think you’ll find it makes a real difference to how you your mind and body function. A difference which matters more than ever. What’s more it’s simple and easy to do.
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