Splintering of our attention

Over in this thread: https://forum.literatureandlatte.com/t/vitamin-r-for-creative-productivity/7661/1

There is a discussion on Vitamin-R, which is a type of GTD software that is based on cognitive and behavioral research on how to accomplish many tasks when our time and attention is continually being fragmented.

New research is showing that humans really don’t multitask at all. We simply are fast switchers who have relatively small buffers. The above software attempts to capitalize on these data. Here are some sample articles if you aren’t familiar with this topic already.

Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows:
news.stanford.edu/news/2009/augu … 82409.html

Blog citing Johns Hopkins study on Multitasking vs Task Switching Research
playattention.com/attention-defi … -research/

This is particularly scary when you read about the study on medical interns. (I think this is discussed in this podcast of an NPR report.)

Here is an NPR podcast on How Multitasking Affects Human Learning
npr.org/templates/story/stor … Id=7700581

My point you ask?

I have decided to change my life and not my software. Here are two stories that demonstrate what we are all dealing with.

Story 1. I was working online at 2 AM. A student noticed and emailed me. I ignored the email. At 5 am (as I was finishing up my proposal and sending it out to my colleagues), I get a really nasty email from the same student complaining that I did not respond to his first email and he knew I was online. Note that I do have a policy on getting back to all students within 24-hours.

So how did I “fix” this issue? I got ITS to block pinging for all the professors so the students could no longer tell when we are on the system.

Story 2. I was in my office working early one Sat. morning. Note that students are supposed to be unconscious at this hour having been up all night. I hear banging on my door. I have my lights off and the door is locked. The students yell, “We know you’re in there! We found your car!” Fearing for the safety of my car, I open my office door.

How did I “fix” this issue? I started to park behind a different building and walking over.

I am interested in techniques you use to carve out and protect/defend time to allow for deep focus on thinking/writing tasks.

Let’s limit the discussion here to how we can reduce the number of interruptions and/or their severity and not how to manage them.

I’m already managed out of my gourd. I want to learn how to fight back!

¡Viva la Revolución!



“Against stupidity the very gods
Themselves contend in vain”

Actually, this is not really a question of distraction, it’s a problem of impoliteness. Your students seem to have skipped their upbringing, that’s it.

  1. I am rude. "I ignored you because I have more important things to do. My “do not disturb” signs are public and rarely ignored. I don’t like being this way, but I am left to complete work when I need to.

  2. I work remote. A lot. Out of sight… I am fortunate that I can do this. Not everyone else can.

  3. Boundaries. Lots of them. Strictly enforced. Read number 1 again. I put up signs when I need to be left alone. My kids know to be quite when my car is home before they are. Mrs knows that when I am working at desk A I am not to be disturbed unless death is immanent.

  4. I say no. I only have so much time. If I am down to 20% I refuse new work. If folks don’t like it I provide a list of current projects, the owner of the project and offer to set up a time for them to duke it out on priority. Until they get someone to back off my answer is final.

  5. I enforce this for all my employees. As a group manager I protect my people as if they were me. If one of them is busy on a “OMG” project I have been known to give them my space to work in. I then practice #1, #3 and #5 for them. This way I take the heat.

The upshot is that we are very efficient and very very rarely late on project deliveries. And since I am always the bad guy folks love my team.

That is how I deal with people anyway. Toys and the 'net… bah.

I work (editing a magazine and writing) at home. The magazine’s office is 1500 miles away.

Every day at 4pm, I turn off my cellphone (I only have a cellphone), and my computer. It is then no longer possible to contact me unless you come to my house, which is very hard to find.

At 5am, I turn on the computer and work on writing projects. When my wife comes downstairs to watch the news and get ready to go to work, I read the Internet RSS feeds of interest, check the email for things that will want doing later, and when she heads for school I go back to writing until about 9am.

At 9am, I turn on my cellphone and am officially in the office until 4pm, editing and reading manuscripts and whatever needs doing, including periodically checking the RSS feeds for items of interest, when I decide I need a break from focusing on whatever it is I’m focusing on, which averages about once an hour. Though I’ll also wander off to weed the garden or shovel snow or split wood, for a break from the keyboard, and if the workload permits and the whimsy moves me, I’ll go fishing or for a sail or just for a walk. In any case, I break for lunch, and then walk to town for the mail and whatever’s needed from the store.

After the first year or two, people noticed I wasn’t available for phone calls after 4 or before 9, and didn’t answer official emails before 9 or after 4, and they left me alone.

It isn’t selfish, becoming me-centric. It’s simply the only way to get things done in a frantic and fragmented world.

Apollo, I sympathize with your plight a little more than the others here, because they are not dealing with students, who are a special breed of client. Their habits are nocturnal, and they live on Red Bull and Adderall, so small wonder they are bugging you at odd hours with insanely rude behavior.

Of course, you don’t need to take it, even if you are a new TA or non-tenured prof. Assume the status of grown-up and roll out those dreaded over-30 phrases:

I’m sorry, you have mistaken me for someone who cares about your life/grades/problems.
Do you know the number for the Security department? I think you just broke in.
What’s your name again? I want to write it in my grade book.
I have trapped your IP/Phone number and it’s gone to the cops, sorry…
Oh, gosh, glad to hear from you, but wait a second…(lay phone down and ignore it)

I used to waste LOTS of time trying to be a “friend” to students.
But then I learned, if you turn them away, they go find another pigeon.
Besides, they can’t remember your name/face the next semester.
And if you want to earn tenure, your writing is far more important than teaching.
So it’s entirely correct to say; sorry, but I’m in charge here, and you’re not.

Ahab and Jaysen also give good advice on controlling your time and access.
Writing is very hard work; it requires quiet and concentration.
I think early to bed, early to rise is also a good formula.
Especially if working on a deadline project. Good luck!

See also:


I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, although my circumstances are a lot closer to Ahab’s (a landlubberly version) than Apollo’s. I read this timely piece:

guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/ … -aj-jacobs

… and decided to return to earlier habits of meditation and reflection. As soon as I took an objective look at my mind, though, I realised I was in trouble. Somewhere in the last few years my mind has completely rewired itself to be a multitasking wonder, and concentration is out the door. I’ve been trying to meditate for the last few days, and all I get is something like a mental pop video, only more mundane.

I’m going to take up the AJ Jacobs experiment (see above). I live in a beautiful remote place, but I’ve begun to lose the ability to enjoy it sensually because of my grasshopper mind. Time to put it on a fast and remind it of higher things.

Multi-wot? :open_mouth: :confused:

Excellent thread subject, if I may say so, and excellent advice.

This ought to be inscribed on the wall in all organisations:

Jaysen, may I come and work for you? :wink:

But unfortunately there are roles where multi-tasking is effectively part of the spec. I had one like that once. I did it for several years. Some of the Jaysen/Ahab types of rules and remedies were useful, although in the end doing one task by day (managing in a busy cube-farm), doing another by night (scripting fast-moving topics)) and sleeping little or not at all constituted the frequent fall-back. My boss-at-the-time says to me nowadays, echoing the saying about the Sixties: “If you can remember much about it, you weren’t doing the job very well.”

In general, such roles are to be avoided, in my view. :slight_smile:


Thanks Hugh. That is one of the best compliments I have ever received†. I am down 3 heads right now. They keep getting poached by other groups. Feel free to get a ticket and come on over. The biggest things for me are project/task management, working documentation, and “make the tech understandable”. If you can do that then the “tech” can be learned.

For the record we currently have 18 open projects with something like 2K tasks to deliver (tasks that are high level such as “document application architecture”). The method that I use is more analogous to “aggressive time slicing” than multi-tasking. I developed this method after working on a few real time system (RTS) controller modules. I realized that since all tasks require some level of paging when you are switching tasks (think of this like using post its to keep track of where you are) that much time can be saved by simply not switching. Since you saved time (net +) you can actually do more work with less effort. This method has lead to a calculated group efficiency of 143%.

The other big point that I missed before is “forced absence”. A while back i was near a breaking point. I walked into my boss and quit. He asked why and I unloaded. He told me to take a week and think about it, but since I was quitting I needed to leave all the company assets with him. In two days I was itching to get back to work. By day three I realized what the core issue was and had a plan to solve it. By day 5 I had realized that I never actually “thought” about work, so I stayed. The boss at the time claims that he just didn’t want to lose the resource (me). I don’t wait for it to get bad anymore and will just “go dark” for a day to get unwound.

Following this through to the “protect my people”; I have been known to walk into a cube, ask someone to shutdown their system, hand me the cell, then tell them to not come back to the office for 3 or 4 days. I don’t want them on line for work. I don’t want folks calling them. I want them to unwind, refresh the brain, and come back ready to eat all the problems that come their way.

Folks that don’t work for me think I am a tad extreme. I don’t disagree. The results speak for themselves.

†[size=75] The best ever was “I do”.[/size]

(1) If you call me and wake me up at an hour that is unreasonable I will entertain your request then I will go about calling you every night at the wee hours of the morning only to ask you non-essential questions about the topic you disturbed my sleep on. The stupider the question I can come up with the longer I will keep you on the phone. Eventually you will realize that disturbing me has a result of you yourself being disturbed 10 fold.

(2) If I had a student that sent me a nasty email like story one I would print out the email and take it to class and then spend about 15 minutes discussing all of the things I take into consideration when grading papers. Then I would show the email and explain that disturbing me in the late hours of the night takes my attention away from grading papers and thus people tend to get failing grades when I lose my sleep. Also note that 40% of their grade depends on their ability to understand your policies such as the concept of 24 hours.

(3) Story 2 I would put a sign on my door that states if you knock on my door and its not an emergency I will deduct 10% of your total grade for every knock I hear so it better be important.

(4) Don’t entertain the comforts of a person not deeply personal to you. They will come to expect it instead of appreciating your efforts. Be upfront and no nonsense (See Jaysen’s post)

(5) Be honest and tell a person the truth. Statements like “I’m sorry but I am busy right now.” are to submissive. You have nothing to be sorry for. Instead statements like “Look, I am real busy right now so this will have to wait until another time.”

(6) Pretend to hear voices and twitch a lot. People will avoid you.

State clearly at the beginning of each term the hours during which you are (and are not) available. Explain that interruptions outside of those hours will be penalized, with escalating penalties for repeat offenders. The first couple of times that you get interrupted anyway, use it as an excuse to remind the other students of the penalties.

ALSO, and equally important, NEVER entertain interruptions outside of your designated available hours. If you answer one email at 2 AM, then the students will be completely justified in seeing your rules as flexible, and will inevitably attempt to find out where the limits are. This includes making yourself invisible to instant messaging, as people who are visible are assumed to be making themselves available. (If you want to be visible to friends and family, get a second account.) It also includes being ruthless in getting rid of in-person interruptions, up to and including calling campus security.

Story 1: Read the email aloud in class. Announce that, in addition to the grade penalty of your choice, senders of gratuitously nasty emails will be treated as spammers and blocked.

Story 2: Open the door. Say “I am busy. Please come back during my posted office hours.” Slam the door. If they knock again, call campus security.


Dealing with studentry, it’s possible to develop a kind of death ray, or at least a friend of mine has. He teaches writing at a large land-grant college in that state where so many of our board contributors come from. We were having dinner at a campus-adjacent pizzeria, and in mid-munch his faced turned a stone-curdling clay color–frightening to behold. I asked his wife what was wrong, had he swallowed a pepperoni the wrong way? And she said it was his Presumptuous Student face. Looking around, I saw a Presumptuous Student, manuscript in hand, frozen in mid-step. She then slowly reformed, subsided, and retreated, as one might from a ravening grizzly.

He said he practiced in front of a mirror until he began to frighten himself, and then refined it in public until he could frost a grad student at 20 paces. Undergrads take more grimacing, apparently, because they have not yet lost the parentally inculcated idea that they are Special.

:smiley: :smiley: Love it.

And there was I, thinking you were a nice human. Ah well.

I do some work for a law firm. One of challenges of working on-site is that while I’m working on very-important-must-be-done Project A, I’m asked to do this, that, this other thing, Projects B through L, oh, and what kind of progress am I making on Project A?

After endless attempts to manage, I finally just informed that these 3 hours on this day were devoted to Project A and I was unavailable for anything else. I reinforced that by being on-site, but hiding in another office for that time. Good thing, too, because I found out later that they were “looking” for me to do some non-essential stuff.

The hardest part about setting up fences around my time seems to be enforcement. And it also seems to be the most important part.

This can not be understated. The key that I have found to addressing this problem is open communication and consistency. Open can be as obvious as a sign posted in an entrance or a message sent to your peers via email. The most uncomfortable part is the consistency though. Have to ask someone to leave in a fairly firm voice can be quite disconcerting, especially if that someone is a superior. My experience is that once the superiors “get it” they are very supportive.

Then again they may just be afraid of me. That whole “missing head” thing really freaks some people out.

I like saying yes more than I like saying no, so that firm voice thing is something I don’t usually use unless I’m really irritated. By the time the firm voice appears, I am less likely to be filtering what I’m saying or how I’m saying it.

I realized when I set up the dedicated time to work on the project that I would need to reinforce that boundary. Part of the reinforcement was removing myself to another office (so I wouldn’t have to say “no” or “yes, later”). I wasn’t that happy about doing it this way, as I think that this is “managing” others. The other part of the reinforcement was later sending out another email to the partner who had been looking for me, reminding the person of the dedicated time, and suggesting that if the day I had chosen for the dedicated time was not good, we move it to another day. This reinforcement I respected more, as (I think) it validated the person’s concerns that I was unavailable, and mine that the project receive some undivided attention.

I tell you, it’s mighty hard work figuring out not where to build your fences, but when to pull your shotgun.

Some key factors to success:

(1) Salesmanship. Selling yourself, your work, your time, whatever. If you can’t sell it find someone to sell it for you.
(2) Organizing your time and resources.
(3) Delegating authority.
(4) Determining if time invested does not outweigh the return on the end product. (return on investment, where your “investment is your time”.
(5) Determining what your time is actually worth.
(example: I have done graphic design/web design work for many clients. My “production” time in in graphic design is around $75-$150 dollars per hour. If I am doing "tech support during regular business hours my time is worth $125-$250 an hour. After 6pm my time becomes around 30% more valuable. After 11pm it becomes about 50% more valuable. (I value sleep)

[size=85]*determining the “value” of your time will help you determine not only WHEN to do something but how valuable your time is during different time frames which may say an interruption during the afternoon while I am doing graphic design might only be a $75 interruption where as that same interruption at 1 am while I am doing “tech support” may cost me $375. This also shows me that I should schedule my “cheapest” production (graphic design) during the day and my tech support later in the evening to be the most profitable based on my own “time value”.[/size]

(6) Customer service
(7) Being on time and keeping your word. Don’t make deadlines then constantly break them.
(8) Don’t take on a project without evaluating the value of your own time or you will never know what to prioritize nor what to charge.
(9) Don’t listen to a hick like me.
(10) Don’t alienate family. Family time is a “value” as is friend time. Don’t ignore the value of family/friend time. Incorporate it in with your other projects or everything in your life will lose value.

Pay special attention around item 9 in that list! :wink:

Sound statements wock. The “value” and scheduling pieces in particular.

Thanks all for the great conversation!

As for how to handle students, I do use the word no. I learned many years ago that befriending is not the same as leading. (As Druid pointed out.) As for Wock’s suggestion that I make a lesson of the student who emailed me at 2 AM and 5 AM, I had to laugh because that is exactly what I did before having ITS prohibit pinging profs. I did put the two offending email up on screen and reviewed with the class why this was not the way to approach one’s prof. There were 180+ students in that section so I hope it helped!

I also have a sign that states: Failure to plan on your part, does not constitute an emergency on my part.

However, I really wish I had ahab’s death ray. That would be so cool.

One additional gripe I have stems from being female. When a male colleague tells a Dean “no” – say during a meeting – the Dean says nothing. However, when I or another female say “no” we are ALWAYS challenged as to WHY we are unavailable. Even before getting the tenure nod, I did not put up with this horse hockey. I did not reply but instead asked the offending Dean (or Provost) why it was that the females were asked this question and not the males. The implication being that all the women had a pressing pedicure appointment while the men had a “serious” event to go to. The Dean or Provost would become uncomfortable and the conversation ended there.

Many of my female colleagues would not do this for fear of being denied tenure. I had a different view. If this is what it took to be a tenured faculty member, I didn’t want it. However, I was a high school science teacher and Dept. head before going back to obtain my Ph.D. So, I was older and had already given up tenure once to move to the University level. Even having profited twice with tenure, I am still against it as too many of my colleagues abuse the system. (Another topic for another latte evening.)

Upshot on this conversation:

I have found that it is the physical impediments that save me the most (i.e. like flow’s suggestion of hiding in a different office). Everyone knows about turning off the ringer on the phone but I have to put a stick’em/post-it note over the blinking light or my curiosity always gets the better of me. (It used to be guilt too but that wore out about three years ago.)

I really like that Jaysen knows the importance of protecting one’s people. (Not having a head to lose might have something to do with it.) My Ph.D. advisor once called me at home and told me that I was very sick and needed to stay in bed ALL day. I asked why and he said that the dept. head was looking for someone to cover a class and that he wanted me to do it. Needless to say, I fell ill immediately and made sure to look pale the rest of the week. But again… NOT being there is what saved me.

However, I do have trouble with email. I need to be able to send items OUT so I can’t help but see the items that are coming IN. I haven’t quite tamed that beast yet. Suggestions welcome.

Obviously, it all comes down to priorities. However, some days, you will have more than you can do and you will have to disappoint someone. I have trouble doing that. Oh… I can disappoint people initially… no problem… then I use up valuable brain space feeling guilty about it. Suggestions?

We all have needy relatives. Again, physical space seems to help. According to a study… don’t have time to cite this one… U.S. women now actually spend more time with their children than their mothers but experience more guilt when they are away. Can’t win for losing!

Again, thanks all and in the future, if you come upon and new and effective strategy, please share!!