Attention on a Hazzy Whiteboard

My favorite podcast episode from the break featured Gloria Mark and Ezra Klein. The subject was attention. How we use it, how we use it poorly, how it causes burnout or joy. To quote Ezra:

And I am so convinced that attention is the most important human faculty. That at the end of your life, what was your experience of your life? It was the experience of the sum total of the things that you paid attention to.

The Ezra Klein Show

I encourage everyone to listen (I’m making it a homework assignment for my son this week).

The Whiteboard Analogy

A particular part of the podcast I found enlightening centered around the concept of “the mind as a whiteboard.” Here’s Gloria Mark:

So imagine that you have a whiteboard in your mind. And for everything we do, for every task, we need to have a mental model of that task. We need a schema. And so you’ve got this schema about the task you’re working on right now. And then you suddenly switch your attention. It’s like erasing that whiteboard and writing the new information you need, the new mental model. Then we switch again. And we keep doing that.

Now, I’m not talking about switching between Word, and email, and Slack, which might be within the same project. And if we’re switching screens within the same project, then we’re talking about every 47 seconds switching. But when we’re thinking about a larger project, then it comes to about 10.5 minutes.

But the point is, we switch our attention a lot. And this whiteboard analogy I find to be very, very useful. And the reason is, because sometimes, when we switch our attention, we might get really caught up in something like the news. You’re looking at the news, and you read about some horrific event, or these days, political news. And then you switch back to your project, and that event stays with you. It’s a residue.

And it’s just like with an internal whiteboard, it leaves a residue. Sometimes, you can’t erase that whiteboard in real life completely, right? You see traces of what was written on it. Same thing happens in our minds. And that residue can interfere with our current task at hand.

Residue. Sometimes, I feel like I’m swimming through that residue. The schemas I’m holding need focused and sustained attention, and the cludgy remnants of previous mental states and distractions make the thinking I enjoy turn into thinking that is exhausting (and poorly done).

Take that Learning, Make it Real

Gloria has a few suggestions:

  1. Take sufficient breaks. To me, this means walking. It does NOT mean checking social media.
  2. Understand your personal attentional rhythm. I think I have a fairly good grasp on my rhythm. Mornings are the best for thinking (although intellectual reading before bed is growing on me). Midmorning for writing. And the afternoon is for the daily grind that features far more code and attention switching.
  3. Instead of todo lists, consider your day an attention hike with peaks and valleys. Do the thinking and creative work during the peaks. I am a huge todo list doer. But I like the idea of structuring todos into buckets of attention match to my attentional rhythm.
  4. Practice forethought – imagining how our current actions will affect our future selves. This helps keep on track during the moments of the day.
  5. Keep your goals in mind (future post!).

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