Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Attention, distraction, deep work and burnout

In 2012, I noted that one of the things on my plate at work was the program's accreditation review. When I took on the role of program director in my school, I knew that the program's accreditation review would be the most important thing I would tackle. The accreditation review took place in late fall 2015 and we received our decision in January 2016.  There were many, many steps leading up to the review and many things that happened prior to the decision.  I'll not list all of the details, but I will say that an accreditation review is more work than anyone can imagine.  And I led our review.  I rallied the troops which included a large number of faculty and staff who either worked on the review, provided auxiliary support and/or met with the external review panel.  I edited, wrote, shepherded, prepped, arranged, worried, picked up pieces, met, and eventually celebrated.

Desk with too many devices
A desk with too many devices
One of the things I did a lot of was multi-tasking.  It became very normal to have multiple windows open on my computer and to be bouncing between them.  It is how many of us now work. We believe that splitting our attention across multiple screens or devices is efficient.  And somehow we prove to ourselves that it is.

Last week I listened to a 29-minute podcast on "Attention/Distraction" from RN Future Tense. The first thing it reminded me of is that there was a time when I didn't multi-task. True!  Even when I was using a computer, it used to be that flipping between windows couldn't be done.  Instead, I would concentrate on that one thing I was doing.  Being distracted took more work than just pressing Alt-Esc.

In the podcast, cell phones are compared to slot machines, where we are always wondering what is going to happen next. Yes, I must check it because something important might be happening on Facebook or in email.  Constantly checking the phone or email or...is a distraction, even if I'm just noticing it if is buzzing.

Looking at camera and laptop
Looking at camera and laptop
More importantly, the podcast reminded me of something that is affecting many of us, and that is our inability to do deep work.  Deep work occurs when we are not distracted.  When I was a child, deep work occurred at the dining room table when I was doing homework.  As an consultant, deep work occurred when I "put my head down" and focused solely on the project at hand.  In the classroom, deep work occurs when I block out thoughts of what I need to do later and focus only on the material I'm teaching and on my students.  Deep work requires focus.

For students, being distracted impacts their ability to concentrate on the material being taught.  Most college students come to class with a laptop, tablet or cell phone (or perhaps all three) and they can easily distract themselves by flipping from window to window.  They can also distract themselves with non-computer activities. They can even be distracted by each other or by something in the environment.  Mel Robbins gives an example in this YouTube video of a fourth grade class that was distracted (26 min. 15 sec to 27 min. 35 sec.).  I'm now beginning to consider what changes I need to make in the classroom so that students stay more focused.  Not only do I need to create an environment that has less distractions, but I also need to teach them how to create less distractions for themselves.

Besides eliminating distractions, we need processes to help us focus.  David Allen's book and process Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity has been helpful to me.  I'm also a fan of his GTD podcasts, where I've been able to pick up tips. As I was going through the accreditation review, having a system was important. Today - when things are much calmer - having a system is still important, because it helps me focus. 

Mel Robbins talks about focus in this quick video and gives three tips that help her.  I'm not sure I would trust the three things that came to mind in the bathroom as being the most important for the day, but I do think that my to-do list (thanks to GTD) along with the sticky notes would work. And perhaps not in the bathroom, but over my morning cup of coffee!

I've tagged this post with "Innovation" and so you might wonder what this all has to do with innovation.  Innovations don't occur when our mind is split across multiple tasks or when we 're burned out.  Innovations occur when our minds a free to focus.  That freedom comes from not being distracted by a myriad of different things, including our to-do list.

Yes...I can hear you say that some inventions have occurred because a person was tinkering - was distracted - and came up with "X".  Was that person's mind really wandering wildly or was it ruminating over an idea?  Consider if you can come up with an invention while you're flipping through multiple screens on your laptop, glancing at your cell phone, and listening to a meeting.  If you're trying to invent a new way of doing "Y", I think you'd be better off eliminating distractions and toying with the ideas that come to mind about "Y".  Examine the ideas. Work on them.

If you think that you can't focus for long period of time, you might be correct. But it is likely that you can focus for longer periods than what you are doing now.  Consider using the Pomodoro Technique to help you, along with whatever other methods work for you.  The Pomodoro Technique asks you to focus for a specific length of time and then to give yourself a break.  Yes, it can really help.

Now that it is summer (in the northern hemisphere), take time to relax and to figure out how to be less distracted when you work.  Create new routines.  (I am!) Your mind and your to-do list will thank you!

1 comment:

Paul Signorelli said...

Wonderful. And I'm pleased to report that I was able to read it start to finish without a single distraction pulling me away from it. Now the challenge is to carve out time to check out the resources you've cited here before...oh, no, phone's ringing--gotta runnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn