On Focus: Conquering the Shiny Squirrel

Jun 23 / Tonianne DeMaria
The vibration of your mobile calendar app reminding you of your 11am call. The flashing display of your smart watch, guilting you into another (mere) 3k steps before lunch. Aural and visual radiators on your desktop alerting you to additions to your inbox, changes made to Dropbox, and yet another Slack notification. Ubiquitous numerical displays incessantly signaling friend requests, status changes, and other social media updates that, in both Pavlovian and FOMO fashion, condition you to keep myriad tabs open responding as they beckon.
So what about that otherwise simple “five minute email” you sat down to compose almost an hour ago? Given all the distractions you’ve already had to contend with, you’re now 47 minutes in and have but two intelligible lines written. Barely intelligible.

We live in an era where wending our way through the daily deluge of digital distractions has become synonymous with how knowledge workers function. When pulses and Pings! and pop-ups jockey for our attention, and task / context-switching typifies the way we’ve come to work, it’s no wonder our already drunk-monkey minds are incapable of completing any of the things we’ve begun, let alone complete them thoughtfully, and with quality.

Blame it on the Siren’s call (or perhaps more appropriately, the Siren’s duet) of novelty and immediate gratification. For better or for worse our brains are hardwired to respond when something new is introduced into our otherwise stable environment. Optimized to minimize risk and maximize reward, the brain is primed to detect, remember, and ascertain what type of outcome the seemingly unfamiliar will provide.
  • Does it pose a risk?
  • Might it result in a potential reward?
  • Will the immediate gratification be more fulfilling than the delayed payoff for what I am currently doing?
  • Well let’s stop what we’re doing and go find out!
It’s not simply technology that is responsible for our distractions. Human interruptions are also a factor, as are cognitive ones like lack of clarity, self-doubt and fear, all which can invite procrastination. There are likewise more stealthy interruptions - the “neural noise” we try but seldom succeed at suppressing: the air-con set too high or low, the aroma of freshly-baked cinnamon buns beckoning from the next room - triggering a rumble in our stomach, stimulating our salivary glands. - compelling us to drop what we are doing mid-task and tend to this newly-realized "need" tout suite. Any deviation in our environment can compromise focus.

In and of itself, acknowledging and responding to the unfamiliar or unexpected is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, exploration of novelty is how we learn and, perhaps more importantly, how we were able to survive as a species. Detecting an unfamiliar smell, a sudden rustle of leaves, or the slinking of a shadow where none previously existed kept our prehistoric ancestors from succumbing to predators. What does prove problematic about novelty in the context of knowledge work is when it compels us to shift our attention mid-task, naively anticipating a smooth return to the task we first shifted our attention from.

Now where was I?

Anyone who has found themselves reading the same page over and over upon returning from a distraction knows there is seldom a seamless transition when shifting gears, especially when dealing with high-cognitive tasks that are dissimilar in size and/or type.

As is evidenced by the proliferation of scholarship in cognitive science, neuro-performance, and the growing sub-field of “interruption science,” task / attention switching has reached epic proportions in the 21st Century workplace, the negative effects of which can not be overstated.

Unfortunately, the impacts of this executive function are often underestimated. It’s like my grandmother used to say,

Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.

When it comes to optimal processing speed, the brain processes high-cognitive tasks sequentially - one thing at a time, one after the other - rather than in parallel. When there is a disruption in that workflow, we incur not just a carry-over cost from the first task, but a ramp-up cost for the second. The more complex the task, the more our cognitive ability - our focus - is degraded (by something University of Washington Professor Sophie Leroy refers to as “attention residue”) the more processing speed and quality we sacrifice in the shift, setting off a cycle that is nothing if not vicious.

Task-switching then begets more task-switching - not completion. This is in part attributed to “the Zeigarnik Effect,” a phenomenon in which information and tasks left incomplete don’t leave our mind. Instead, we dwell on those incomplete tasks, and those intrusive thoughts render us even more vulnerable to distractions. The energy that consumes - the metabolism task-switching requires - drains our cognitive capacity, causing frustration, burnout, impeding focus and inviting error and rework, preventing us from realizing our optimal potential.When we task-switch we break our flow-state. And you can’t achieve flow without a healthy constraint.

Enter Personal Kanban

Limiting work-in-process (WIP), the second of Personal Kanban’s two rules, enables that flow-state. When we don’t limit our WIP we are more susceptible to the immediate gratification we get from responding to a distraction. In the absence of Personal Kanban's first rule Visualize your work,  the penalty for taking on that new task without completing tasks already in flight is never made explicit, and so we continue to overtax our “system of production,” our brains. Visualizing work and limiting WIP compels us to focus on and complete our priorities, and complete them with quality. And that completion comes with its own reward.

The brain thrives on completion; accomplishing a goal literally feels good. A recent study posits a chemical reaction in the brain occurs when we so much as say the word “done” upon completing a task, no matter the task’s size. When we achieve a goal or overcome a challenge dopamine is triggered - the neurotransmitter that regulates the brain's pleasure center - leaving us calm, confident, and focused. And let's face it, those feelings can be addictive. We are then primed for another "hit" of dopamine, inclined to repeat the behavior that triggered the dopamine reward in the first place and so anticipating the pleasure that comes with completion sets into motion a virtuous cycle.

To be sure, interruptions are the nature of the beast when it comes to knowledge work because the “gemba” - the metaphorical workshop where we create value - is in our head. So the next time you need to drown out the cacophony of social and aural and visual and neural noise from your colleagues and your phones and your monkey minds simply to get that five minute email off your plate, remember how a boost of dopamine dulls the allure of even the shiniest of squirrels.