Joshua Keel

The Piteous Death of Attention

April 30, 2018

I’ve been a knowledge worker for many years. Each day I go into the office, sit in my cubicle, and spend my day writing software and fixing issues on our production servers. I spend about eight hours staring at a computer screen, then go home and jump back online to see what’s new on YouTube, or who has emailed me in the last 45 minutes.

Or at least this has been my pattern. Recently, I moved from Washington, DC to Raleigh, NC, and began working remotely full-time. Even when I lived near the office, I still worked remotely two days a week, so I have some experience with the potential pitfalls of remote work. But what I began to notice more strongly as I worked from home each day is how easily distracted I am from the task at hand.

I find this to be especially true in meetings. For me, most meetings have about 65% relevant content, and 35% I can just tune out. During those times when I’m on a conference call and two or three people are hashing out some boring detail, I would open up my email, check Slack for the 50th time, or just start working on something else. Or worse, check the news, see what’s up on Ars Technica, or check my investment accounts.

In short, I am very easily bored, and my attention is sharded into 15 different pieces. I’m not focused on any one thing. Instead, I’m half-doing and half-listening to many things.

After reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, I’ve been a lot more aware of my tendency to avoid focused concentration. I’ve become downright scared of how distracted I can be. My fear of distraction arises from the knowledge that my best, deepest work will never be done in a distracted state. If I let my mind continually wander, it will form a habit that will be hard to break, rendering it almost impossible to focus, even when I want to.

Having noticed this tendency to avoid the slightest discomfort and boredom when on a call, or when wrestling with some tough code, I have begun to try to interrupt the cycle of attention hijacking. By bringing my awareness to the moments when I open a new tab in my web browser and start typing a URL that is irrelevant to the task at hand, I get a better sense of what’s happening in my brain.

Each time my attention shifts, there is a subtle internal pull, the anticipation of pleasure and stimulation to be found in the next email or clickbait news headline. But when I feel that pull, I have discovered that I can watch it happen without acting on it. I can exercise self-control to override the basic, irritably bored instinct to change the channel of my attention to something more exciting. I can use mindfulness to become aware of and resist distraction.

It’s not initially as easy as I’m making it sound, but our ability to focus improves with practice. Over time, the distraction impulse recedes into the background and we can sustain longer periods of focused attention.

And you know what? By doing this, I’ve become more engaged in meetings, which I believe has helped improve not only my effectiveness, but that of my team as well. If I’m too distracted to share a key piece of information with my team that could help save them time and energy, that’s a loss for everyone. And there have been too many times where someone asks “Josh, what do you think?” and I’m filled with mortal terror because I have no idea what we’re talking about, since I’m nose deep in an article.

I have developed a simple personal philosophy about meetings: be present or get out. Either fully participate and contribute whatever you have to offer, or excuse yourself and get the hell out of there so you can do something meaningful with your time.

Being mentally checked out of a conversation does a disservice both to you and your teammates. You can’t fully focus on your work because you’re distracted by the voices on the other end of the line, and your teammates aren’t getting your full attention, so they don’t receive the insights you could offer. Your attention translates to better ideas that help make your team more successful. Less dead-end busy work and more meaningful progress.

Given the importance of staying focused in order to perform difficult mental work, I suggest these strategies:

We’re constantly being assaulted by information that threatens to divide our attention and increase mental clutter. In a world that values multi-tasking and scrolling through news feeds, we have to be the protectors of our own ability to focus. Protect yourself by turning off the information hose and breaking the habits that keep you from maintaining fixed attention. I’m working on these things myself every day. I don’t always succeed, but the reward of increasing focus even a little bit is worth the effort.