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
Lots of us are willing to work when we’re feeling inspired, but what about when you’re not? According to Seth Godin, the true creative professional distinguishes himself by doing work even when he’s not in the mood.
Here’s what Godin has to say in an interview for our new 99U book:
Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done. There is no evidence that setting up your easel like Van Gogh makes you paint better. Tactics are idiosyncratic. But strategies are universal, and there are a lot of talented folks who are not succeeding the way they want to because their strategies are broken.
The strategy is simple, I think. The strategy is to have a practice, and what it means to have a practice is to regularly and reliably do the work in a habitual way.
There are many ways you can signify to yourself that you are doing your practice. For example, some people wear a white lab coat or a particular pair of glasses, or always work in a specific place—in doing these things, they are professionalizing their art.
The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important. Because lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.
This is an excerpt (and interior photograph) from Manage Your Day-to-Day, the new book from 99U, with contributions from Seth Godin, Leo Babauta, Steven Pressfield, Dan Ariely, and many more.
In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a painfully honest commencement speech, urging listeners to live life mindfully and to have empathy for our fellow humans. Above is a ten-minute excerpt of the speech which you can read in its entirety here. Some choice excerpts:
Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible.
It just depends what you what to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.
You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.
via Daring Fireball
Overcoming procrastination isn’t as simple as keeping a todo list. There are often significant (and often hidden) mental hurdles that can prevent us from doing our best work. Scientific American interviews Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, to explore why we sabotage ourselves. One of the culprits? Comparing ourselves to others. From the story:
Carefully consider the motives that are driving our decisions, and examine whether they are driven by the bitter feelings resulting from where we stand in comparisons to others.
On a wide range of dimensions, from how trustworthy we are to how good looking others find us to be, we often compare ourselves to our peers to evaluate where we stand. These types of social comparisons can lead to irrational behaviors. For instance, we may accept a job offer paying a lower salary than another that pays more but where other people like us make more money than we would.
Most task management systems have some sort of “someday” column for projects with no urgency. Stuff like “visit Japan” or “learn the guitar” usually find a home here. However, just like we do Spring cleaning we have to cull this list, lest the emotional weight of these uncompleted tasks wear on us. If we’re not careful, this list can be a graveyard of lofty and unachievable tasks. David Caolo at The Unclutterer offers a solution:
“Visit Japan” is not a task, it’s a project. Fortunately, my old job helped me get good at breaking complex behaviors (or in this case, projects) down into very small, observable, concrete actions. Perhaps “discuss life in Japan with uncle who used to live there” is a doable first step. Maybe “research seasonal weather in Japan” or “find a well-written book on Japanese customs or food” could be other first steps.
As a result the “someday” list becomes a “research” list. “Figure out the answers to these questions and get moving,” says Caolo. “Avoid the clutter and guilt of a Someday/Maybe list and start working toward these projects in the present.”
Word notebooks have a simplified use guide that offers a code of sorts for marking todo lists. Though the code is meant for their notebooks, we’d like to think you can use it on any stationary.