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attention

Productivity

Are You an Overwhelmed Leader?

The overwhelmed employee: Simplify the work environment
(Deloitte University Press report, 2014)

There’s lots of good information in this report, but one idea stands out for me: whether leadership in the organization is able to manage their own attention effectively. As a leader, your followers mimic your work style. If you are, or appear to be, overloaded, they assume that this is the state of the world and accept their own overloadedness. After all, if the senior managers can’t handle this situation gracefully, why would the “underlings” believe they can. In fact, Peter Drucker wrote (The Effective Executive, 2006) “Executives who do not manage themselves for effectiveness cannot possibly expect to manage their associates and subordinates.” Drucker found that management works by example, with new leaders modeling the behaviors of their leaders. He is supported by many others; here is a recent HBR on the effect of leaders’ behavior on organizational culture.

From the Deloitte report: “Nearly six in ten respondents (57 percent) say their organizations are “weak” when it comes to helping leaders manage difficult schedules and helping employees manage information [and schedules]”. Note that these were two separate questions in the survey, so both employees and leaders are struggling with managing knowledge work.

I’ve coached through this situation in the past. Good attention management usually starts at the top of the organization.

As a leader, you need to think carefully about whether your attention management practices are worthy of emulation. Because, whether you want them to or not, your employees are using you for an example. Have conversations with your employees about good practices and the state of their attention and focus.

As an employee, you need to think carefully about your own attention management practices and not default to copying behaviors in the organization. Your leadership and colleagues may have very intentional and thoughtful systems. On the other hand, they may cringe if you copy behaviors that leave them overloaded themselves. Again, the leadership of the firm should foster conversation around this issue, but if your organization is one of the 57%, you may have to take the lead.

Question: Have you thought about developing an attention and information management system to stave off overwhelm?

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Defending your attention

You do not operate in a helpful or neutral attention environment. The environment is hostile to your control of your attention. It sounds dramatic, but your attention is constantly under attack. This, as much as anything, shows that it is valuable.

Attacks come from three kinds of sources: yourself, your stakeholders, and non-stakeholders who believe your attention is valuable. Further, it is useful to classify attacks as either distractions, which come from you and your habits, or interruptions, which come from others.

Distractions are internal. We cause them ourselves. We need to set aside mental space and defend it fiercely, even from ourselves. I believe what David Allen says – if we put our “stuff” in a trusted place, our brains will stop offering up distractions. So, how are you organizing your “stuff” to defend against distracting yourself?

Our habits both cause distractions and serve as our primary defense against them. If your habit is to check email or Facebook first, you are opening up your attention defenses to attack. If, in preparing for deep work, you shut down your browser and tidy up your workspace, you are defending against distractions. How do your habits and processes help defend your attention?

Interruptions are external. The phone rings, or someone stops by your office with a question. They are a common fact of life for everyone. These kinds of interruptions need defenses as well. Close your email client; put your phone on silent, or in airplane mode. Teach your stakeholders how to get attention requests into the proper queue. How do you defend your attention against random interruptions?

Leaders are more likely to be exposed to interruptions by the nature of their work. But leaders also normally have the power to delegate tasks. Take stock of your interruptions and see if there is some weakness in your delegation processes. One clear sign is that the people you delegate to don’t have the level of authority they need. What defenses have you put in place to guard your attention as a leader?

Your attention is valuable and people are trying to get it. Some of those people are legitimate stakeholders. They deserve your attention, at least at some point. Others are not stakeholders, but want to be; you need to choose when and how they get your attention. Requests for your attention from the web and email probably don’t deserve as much of your attention as they currently get. Finally, you probably distract yourself. If so, you can defend through getting the stuff in your skull out into a system and choosing better habits. We all need to prepare our defenses – delegation, habits, and systems – as much as we can. And we need to do it in advance.

Question: What are you doing in advance to defend your attention against constant distractions and interruptions?

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Deep Work by Cal Newport

qtq80-VjzbQmI have followed Cal Newport for several years now. He earned a Ph.D. in computer science at MIT and is now a tenured professor at Georgetown. He was doing his doctoral work at the same time I was and seemed to have good advice on how to go about earning a degree without going completely insane. He has since published a pair of great books: So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. I’ll post on So Good later, but my thinking about attention management is closely tied to his notion of deep work, so I wanted to cover the topic and the book for my readers’ reference.

Deep Work explains one way in which work is changing. With the rise of knowledge work, Newport sees a division of labor among knowledge workers. Much of knowledge work is what he calls shallow work. Shallow work is the administrative side of knowledge work, including managing email and other communication, organizing, editing, and non-directed surfing on the internet.

In contrast, deep work is the work knowledge workers produce when they are at their best. This is the demanding problem solving, strategizing, proving-new-things kind of work that produces value. It is valuable in the economy because it is hard to replicate and to the worker because it improves the worker’s skills. Deep work occurs in relatively isolated extended chunks of time. We work to get our heads around the entire problem, chapter, or situation and, when we finally do, make progress on the really difficult part of our work. It is the kind of work that, if interrupted, takes a significant amount of time to restart because we have to regain the mental state that was lost due to the interruption.

Newport argues that, in order to produce value, we need to spend more time in deep work.

The problem is that social and technological forces move us toward shallow work. Three prevailing, but questionable, ideas push us toward shallow work: We can multitask and still produce our best work (we can’t). We have to be available for communication at all times (probably not). Social sites and most of the internet produce valuable information (they don’t usually). Newport acknowledges that exceptions exist, but generally argues that these three ideas are not true. Finally, he notes another force toward shallow work – our brains favor shallow work because it is cognitively easier, requiring less mental effort and concentration.

Newport argues that deep work is valuable, increasingly rare, and more meaningful than shallow work.

The value of deep work is based on two of its properties: it allows us to quickly master hard things and it allows us to produce more output of higher quality. It is increasingly important to do these things as we face cognitive computing and the automation of manual and some craft work.

The rarity of deep work is based on cultural arguments. 1) Workplaces are trending toward open offices, instant messaging use, and increased insistence on social media presence, each of which hampers deep work efforts. 2) Particularly in large organizations, it is difficult to directly measure the contribution of deep work; this supports the cult of busyness, in which visible, but shallow, contributions are often rewarded. 3) The cult of the internet believes that something is irrelevant if it is not visible.

In support of the meaningfulness of deep work, Newport makes three different arguments, backed by research.

  1. Neurology – Managing our attention through engaging in deep work keeps us focused away from the traps (e.g. the comparison trap) that tend to make us discontent.
  2. Psychology – Our minds prefer to be engaged in deep work; we like to be challenged and get bored quickly with routine tasks and what currently passes for leisure.
  3. Philosophy – Deep work promotes a sense of craftsmanship (the technical version is elegance) which endows our work with meaning far beyond simply earning money.

Newport finds that, in order to engage in deep work, we need to be in relatively distraction free environments. He cites many examples of authors, academics, and scientists who produced world-changing work, in part, because they removed themselves from distraction rich environments. In part 2, Newport lays out four rules that help us determine what is deep work in our context and help us focus on it. This is the point where my work connects to his – attention management. Much of part 2 relates to thinking on this site.

Rule 1 covers methods of entering into deep work periods. We need to defend our attention while we are trying to work deeply.

Rule 2 shows ways that we can improve our deep work stamina. We need to train ourselves to focus and concentrate, particularly since if we have been engaging in shallow work for years.

Rule 3 is about our communication tools. We need to be more selective about what we engage with on the internet through recognizing that not all tools are of equal value.

Rule 4 considers removing shallow work. We need to identify shallow work in our lives and work to eliminate it; Newport gives a couple dozen tips and practices to try in our work lives.

The book concludes with a short description of how development and application of deep work principles have fueled Newport’s quite successful academic career to date. That evidence alone should be sufficient motivation to bring some deep work into our lives.

Cal continues to elaborate on these ideas on his blog. In addition, Brett McKay interviewed Cal on the Art of Manliness podcast, here.

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What Consumes Your Attention Controls Your Life

(With apologies for hacking the title of the Lifehacker post linked below.)

There is plenty of evidence that our brains are habit machines. Neuroscience finds that when neurons (brain cells) fire, they connect to other neurons. Over several times that a neuronal “chain” fires, that set of connections becomes smoother, kind of like a path worn through a field or forest by consistent traffic. In this sense, you become what you habitually think. In her book Rapt (which I haven’t read, but have heard good things about) Winnifred Gallagher comes to this conclusion: “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.”

There is also plenty of evidence that our brains have trouble differentiating between something we’ve imagined or viewed and something we’ve done. This means that, if your attention can be captured and you view something, a little part of your brain may think you’ve actually done it, or behaved in that way before. This, along with the path-building nature of our brains, means that our behavior can be “programmed”, at least slightly.

These two effects, habitual brains and misremembering, form the foundation of advertising and our attention culture.

As example, TV and the internet are finely tuned attention capture devices (see this Lifehacker post).

TV networks have had decades of learning about how to capture and keep our attention.  As the post says, we hang on for one more episode, during which our attention is directed to ads, which are also finely tuned to trigger our consumption – to modify our behavior. With TV, the purchase of an advertised item is separated from the advertisement itself, because we (as of this writing) have to go to the store or, depending on the time of night you are watching TV, make a phone call. This decision and effort represents a barrier to purchase.

The internet is also a finely tuned attention capture device that directs us to ads. However, it may be more dangerous because the same purchase barriers either don’t exist or are much lower in transactions on the web. (In fact, this HBR notes that retail businesses based on a storefront model need to rethink their strategy in the face of ‘ambient shopping’ on the web and mobile devices.) Therefore, our action (a completed purchase) is more closely connected to our intent (desire for a product) on the web than on the TV.

However, according to Gallagher, it is not merely our shopping and spending that is manipulated, but our very core, our thought patterns. Perhaps we should rethink how we deploy our limited attention.  We want to become what we intend to rather than what we attend to.

Question: How do you decide what gets your attention?

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Keeping Up

The Art of Manliness is a go-to site for me. While the name may put some of you off, Brett McKay and his wife Kate do long form posts on culture and history that would be interesting to anyone. Full disclosure, though: in general, the site is very much aimed at men, in a very cultured and conservative way.

Recently the McKays posted on “Is there any reason to keep up with the news?” (Read time approx. 12 minutes.) They review a recent book by Alain de Botton: The News: A User’s Guide. (I first noticed de Botton through his TED talk on A kinder, gentler philosophy of success, also worth a look.) They discuss de Botton’s arguments and question our actual motivations for keeping up, such as “fear of missing out.” It is a thoughtful piece and may be interesting as you evaluate using your time and attention on news broadcasts and sites. You can probably get the gist of my own position from this previous post.

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Noise and Attention

In previous posts, I’ve talked about Urgent vs. Important and using the Eisenhower Matrix.  I wrote these to introduce a mental model of how to mange our attention and be more productive, both personally and professionally. I want to consider another topic in this vein: Noise. (Note: much of this thinking was triggered by a post on A Life of Productivity by Chris Bailey, check it out. The core thoughts come from Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.)

As knowledge workers, our attention is our most important productive tool. In my attempt to manage my own attention, I try to evaluate how I’ve used my attention in the past. In one instance several years ago, I recognized that listening to talk radio during my afternoon commute (politics, in particular) frittered away my attention. So, I stopped listening to it. I’ll lay out the logic of my decision after I outline the definition of information as noise.

Bailey cites four traits of noise from Before Happiness, by Shawn Achor (which I have not read):

It is unusable, or not actionable.

It is untimely, and will likely change before it can be acted upon.

It is hypothetical, rumors or opinions with an unknowable level of truth.

It is distracting, diverting attention from information that may actually be actionable.

  • Let’s look at my drive time political talk shows through this lens:
    The information I consumed was unusable, partly because it’s scope was national, but mostly because it was repetitive and merely reinforced opinions I already held.
  • Outside of an election cycle, the opinions and positions expressed were untimely.
  • Since the information was solely based on individuals’ opinions it was highly hypothetical.
  • It felt like I was using my attention in a good way, but I wasn’t. My attention was distracted from acquiring other information that may have been actionable for me.

After I changed my listening habits to books on tape and music, I found that I was consuming actionable information, or at least calming, cheerful, enjoyable music – clearly a better way of using my scarce attention.

When we consume noise, we lose attention that could be focused on gathering actionable information. Take a minute and think about how you are using your attention.

Question: Can you eliminate some of the information noise around you and use that attention to improve your mind or your mood?

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GTD

GTD “trusted” system

In a previous post, I tried to relate the GTD (Getting Things Done, David Allen) reasoning for developing and using a trusted system for storing information and tasks, rather than simply trying to remember things.

A few core ideas and components define a GTD trusted system:

The inbox – there is a single location or entry point for the system. Only one.  Ever. This reinforces the habit of using the system. Further, the inbox should be readily accessible so that when information or an interruption occurs, a note can be put in the inbox quickly, and collected and stored there for later processing. Then you can get back to productive, planned work. Anything, in any form, can go into the inbox. Finally, it is important that you alone control what goes into the inbox, because if others can put things directly into your inbox, it gets cluttered. If it gets too cluttered with junk, it gets difficult to process. If it is too difficult to process, you’ll let stuff collect up – congratulations, you’ve officially fallen off the GTD wagon. This fact alone makes your email inbox a lousy GTD inbox. I’ll cover tips on incorporating email in a later post. Remember – a single, private, inbox that is easily accessible – put everything there.

Processing mentality – process the inbox every few hours, or when there is a natural break in work. There are only three permissible actions: do it, delay it, or delete it. If it can be done (or filed for reference) quickly enough to not break the flow of processing, say 30 seconds, then go ahead and knock it out. If it will take longer to do, then delay it, possibly in a task scheduler or suspension list (more on this in a later post). If it is no longer relevant, just delete it. Remember – decide what it is and get it out of the inbox.

Organized storage – the storage system must be organized so you can find things. What does this organization look like? The answer to this question is not obvious in an age where search has overtaken up-front filing. “Pile and search” is a reasonable choice in the age of Google. For me, search is a valuable tool, but has a complication. I use similar terminology in lots of different ways. If I search my 4500 notes for the word “productivity”, I get back a few hundred notes. This is not particularly helpful.

On the other hand, a hierarchical filing system (such as folders in Outlook) has not proven useful for me. The problem with hierarchical storage is that each item stored can only be about one thing. This constraint means that I am limited on how to find things in the system and have to work too hard to find the “right” place to put things.

I have worked on this for a while and have refined a tag-based organization/filing system that I found on the web. I’ll post details on this topic later, but for a preview, go to The Secret Weapon. The site has a 7-minute overview video. Remember – organization is a key to trusting your system.

So,

  • A single, private, readily-accessible inbox
  • Process often and process to empty
  • Organize your storage so you’ll trust it

GTD has been around for a while and has evolved over time. If you’re interested in more detail, here’s a link http://gettingthingsdone.com/get-started/. I also recommend the book; it is thorough and concise.

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“Getting Things Done” as a productivity tool

I’m constantly working on my personal productivity. It’s an ongoing battle with myself, my toolkit, and the urgent but not important attempts to steal my attention away from important work. This post is the first in a series in which I’ll describe some of the ideas that have helped me; perhaps you can learn from my experience.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done (“GTD”, Amazon books), is a core component of my approach to managing tasks, goals, roles, and vision. I have a lot to say on that broader topic, but I’ll start with the basics of GTD. David Allen talks some about it here (about 22 minutes of video).

 “Your head is for having ideas, not for holding them.” – David Allen

GTD’s central premise is that the human brain is terrible at a specific kind of remembering, namely supplying information at the time we need it. As an example, say your spouse calls and asks you to pick up milk on the way home from work. You are happy to do so, but you’re not leaving for a few hours, so you have to remember to do it. You want your brain to supply the information when you need it – ideally just before you drive past the store. As you may have experienced, this is an unreliable mechanism (i.e. you often forget the milk).

According to GTD, your brain has only one means to “remember” a task – think about it constantly, keeping it in short-term memory. In this sense, your brain is constantly using resources, saying “Did we get the milk?” and “Don’t forget the milk.” GTD asserts that this kind of remembering, in addition to being unreliable, is a background buzz that consistently distracts our attention from the productive tasks we need to be doing. Neuroscience and our own experience show that we do our best work when our attention is completely focused on our task (don’t even start with me on “multitasking”, humans simply cannot do it for meaningful work – look for a specific post later). So, how can we get that brainpower and focus back? GTD’s solution is to get what we need to remember out of our brains and into a trusted system.

The idea of a trusted system is: once your brain recognizes that you will be able to find the information or task in the system, it will stop reminding you of upcoming tasks and other information. Your brain will eventually start thinking: “I don’t need to remember the information or task. I just need to remember how to use the system where the information or task is stored.” In this sense, you experience fewer internal interruptions and can utilize that brain power for greater productivity. Advocates of GTD use the term “mind like water” to describe the feeling of freeing up this part of your brainpower. In an upcoming post, I’ll describe the kind of trusted system GTD recommends.

Personally, I find that I no longer worry much about where information is and that I don’t forget as much as I used to. To me, this is indeed a relief. You may decide to use some of these thoughts, or use some others, but as a knowledge worker (see the homepage), your attention and brainpower is your most important asset. Don’t let it be wasted.

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Using the Eisenhower Matrix – Urgent vs. Important

As a follow up to a previous post on time stealers, I thought I would do a more detailed post on urgent and important.

Things that are urgent are attempting to get our attention. Whether we give them our attention is a crucial choice. As knowledge workers, our attention is our valuable creative resource. If we unintentionally fritter it away on unimportant tasks (whether urgent or not), we are wasting that resource.

Once we see the difference between urgent and important, we intuitively understand that we should put our attention on the important tasks and information. If an item is not urgent and not important, we know we should stop doing it, or ignore it. It is not demanding our attention (not urgent) and does not produce progress toward our goals (not important). So quadrant IV (Q-IV from the Eisenhower Matrix) items are easy to eliminate, as long as we have identified what is important.

Important is a particularly personal decision. If an item helps us make progress toward our goals, it is important. But since the goals are ours, we don’t really need anyone’s agreement on this and few people can change the level of importance without our agreement. So if you think an item is truly important, go to work on it.

Urgent is different in that the level of urgency can be manipulated by people other than you. Salespeople and advertisers make a very good living using urgency to get our attention. Anyone anywhere in the world can put something into your email inbox or ring your phone. Junk mail is often marked “Urgent!” Your boss can make something urgent pretty quickly.

The tricky part of focusing on the important is identifying those items that are urgent and not important. This decision takes your attention, although sometimes not much. We can manage many of the items in this quadrant with tools and delegation. In years past, executives had assistants whose job, in part, was to assess urgent items for importance. Now we have spam filters and unsubscribe buttons. Work to allow urgent and not important items to identify themselves so you never have to see them, or can identify them quickly.

So, having eliminated the non-important, how should you allocate your attention? Q-I or Q-II (from the Eisenhower Matrix)? In order to understand that, we need to understand how urgency works over time.

urgency vs time

As you can see in the picture above, I argue that important items get more urgent with time, while not important items get less urgent. This means that Q-II items move to Q-I over time, while Q-III items move to Q-IV. Some people use this fact intentionally – I am aware of individuals who never respond to the first request for information or effort, but let some time pass. “If it is important, they’ll call me back,” thus letting “them” determine the urgency. Nevertheless, I suggest that these people are causing themselves a problem in that no one does their best work when the task is urgent. Deadlines cause us to cut corners. In fact, my new definition of panic is “doing things you know you shouldn’t do, due to time pressure.”

Therefore, working on Q-II items has two benefits: you have time to do better work, and fewer items get into Q-I. Therefore, over time, you gain ground on the pile of Q-I items. You can’t eliminate them completely; other people can and do wait until something is urgent before they make you aware of it. However, you can make a significant dent reasonably quickly.

The bottom line is: identify what is important so you can categorize items according to their quadrant. Then take time from Q-IV to address Q-II items and build defenses and processes to handle or identify Q-III items. Then, use the combined savings from Q-III and Q-IV to address even more Q-II items. Then utilize the additional time from fewer Q-I items to continue to address Q-II items.

Question: How much time are you able to spend in the important, but not urgent quadrant?

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