We think about “deep attention”—the ability to focus on one thing for a long period of time—as the normal way to process information. (And usually the normal way to find creative focus.) But what if it’s just the most recent paradigm for attention?
Here’s what Duke University professor N. Katherine Hayles writes in a recent paper:
Deep attention … is characterized by concentrating on a single object for long periods (say, a novel by Dickens), ignoring outside stimuli while so engaged, preferring a single information stream, and having a high tolerance for long focus times. Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.
Deep attention is superb for solving complex problems represented in a single medium, but it comes at the price of environmental alertness and flexibility of response. Hyper attention excels at negotiating rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention; its disadvantage is impatience with focusing for long periods on a noninteractive object such as a Victorian novel or complicated math problem.
In an evolutionary context, hyper attention no doubt developed first; deep attention is a relative luxury, requiring group cooperation to create a secure environment in which one does not have to be constantly alert to danger. Developed societies, of course, have long been able to create the kind of environments conducive to deep attention.
Educational institutions have specialized in these environments, combining such resources as quiet with an assigned task that demands deep attention to complete successfully. So standard has deep attention become in educational settings that it is the de facto norm, with hyper attention regarded as defective behavior that scarcely qualifies as a cognitive mode at all.
Is a new attentional paradigm on the way?
Image Icon: courtesy of The Noun Project
For an innovative company like 3M, who invented masking tape, Thinsulate, and the Post-it note, stifling creativity was a major concern after a series of “efficiency boosting” techniques were implemented. On BusinessWeek, Brian Hindo discusses how they’ve struggled since with balancing creativity and productivity. As 3M’s past CEO George Buckley elaborates:
Invention is by its very nature a disorderly process. You can’t put a Six Sigma process into that area and say, well, I’m getting behind on invention, so I’m going to schedule myself for three good ideas on Wednesday and two on Friday. That’s not how creativity works.
Ideas need room to breathe. Researcher Steven Boyd found innovation hard to find when asked to analyze everything from commercial application to manufacturing concerns on his projects. This was a huge departure from 3M’s traditional method of allowing the research department to pursue a wide avenue of topics, engage in long testing periods and provide funding for personal projects. Remember to standardize your process, not your innovation.
Instead of just going through the motions on your next project, look for the hidden opportunities you already have. On The Creative Influence, graphic designer Michael Bierut challenges us to look for opportunities in even the most dull assignments. He speaks about his mentor, designer Massimo Vignelli, when he was asked to sort through the chaos of the New York subway signage during the 1960s. He remembers thinking:
Does that sound like an exciting job to you? I wanted to design record covers for rock bands and this is signs for the subway, what the heck? But Massimo understood that every assignment like that had within it the opportunity to do something of consequence. So imagine that, for many people when you sort of say, “what is New York to you?” Sometimes what they picture is standing on a subway platform under a sign that says ‘Uptown 456.’
As Bierut learned, “every single opportunity has the potential to be something that might have some impact on peoples’ daily lives for years to come.”
At Entrepreneur, social behavior expert James Clear states that in any creative endeavor you have to give yourself permission to “create junk.” Don’t fall under the impression that great minds are able to produce compelling work on their first attempt. As Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, affirms:
It was ten years before I got the first check for something I had written and ten more before a novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was actually published. But that moment when I first hit the keys to spell out THE END was so epochal. I remember rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the finished manuscript. Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew. I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath.
The catch? You have to finish it. Even if it is the worst thing you have ever created – get it done. Once you have a finished product, you can go back and find what needs revising. Producing something to completion will provide you with the confidence to continue creating — and eventually, something just might stick.
Actor and comedian Jim Carrey delivered a powerful commencement address at Maharishi University on having the courage to make the leap:
So many of us chose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect so we never dare to ask the universe for it. I’m saying: I’m the proof that you can ask the universe for it.
My father could have been a great comedian but he didn’t believe that was possible for him. So he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive.
I learned many great lessons from my father. Not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.
Multitasking causes a greater decrease in IQ than smoking pot or losing a night’s sleep, found a recent study by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London.
We need to stop overloading our systems with simultaneous inputs (fortunately, music doesn’t count) and revert to focusing on one thing at a time. Sandra Chapman, author of Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Brain’s Creativity, Energy and Focus, shares three tips for monotasking:
Give your brain some down time. You will be more productive if, several times a day, you step away from mentally challenging tasks for three to five minutes. Get some fresh air, for example, or just look out the window. Taking a break will help make room for your next inspired idea because a halt in constant thinking slows the mind’s rhythms to allow more innovative “aha” moments.
Focus deeply, without distraction. Silence your phone, turn off your email and try to perform just one task at a time. Think it’s impossible to break away? Start with 15-minute intervals and work your way up to longer time periods. Giving your full attention to the project at hand will increase accuracy, innovation and speed.
Make a to-do list. Then identify your top two priorities for the day and make sure they are accomplished above all else. Giving the most important tasks your brain’s prime time will make you feel more productive. Or, as Boone Pickens said, “When you are hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits.”
Our best work deserves our full attention. Besides, most people can’t effectively multitask to begin with.
Read Chapman’s full post on why monotasking is the way to go, over at Forbes.
As we do every Friday, we’ve collected our best stuff from the past week for your weekend reading pleasure.
There are many ways to get rich, but many wealthy people exhibit the same 10 habits toward financial independence.
If you have the unfortunate task of laying off staffers, be honest and human. Basically, don’t do this.
Ever take the rest of the day easy because you had a productive morning? Or ate some junk food because you ate well the day before? When we rationalize bad behavior this way it’s called “moral licensing” and left unchecked it could derail your long term goals.
From mahjong parlors, to stoops, to African elections, illustrator Wendy MacNaughton attributes her creativity to getting out of her own head. In other words, get out of your element, find some strangers and then shut up and listen. You can either be comfortable to be creative, but not both.
“The idea of going freelance terrified me,” says designer Craig Ward. “I had no confidence I could turn this into a career.” It was the culmination of 10 years of work, preparation, and networking. In our latest podcast episode we asked we asked Ward how he did it.
Catch more links like these by signing up for our weekly newsletter below, which features our best content, delivered fresh every Sunday.