Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Snapping out of the Work Trance

by Andre · 2 Comments

You are getting sleepy

Lawrence of Arabia: I was thinking.

Ali: You were drifting.

Lawrence: Yes. It will not happen again.

Ali: Be warned! You were drifting.

Lawrence: It will not happen again!

Most office workers don’t have T.E. Lawrence’s problem. On the contrary, the main problem with working in an office is managing and minimizing the interruptions that break your focus. But for anyone who works at home, drift can be a serious problem.

Think of drift as the opposite of “flow.” Flow is a state of total engagement with the task at hand. Self-consciousness is left behind, time seems to disappear, and concentration is at its peak. Drift is physically attending to a task while mentally disengaged from it. The lights are on, but no one’s home. You sit at the keyboard, assuming you’re working, then suddenly realize that you’ve actually been idle for the last 15 minutes.

Catching yourself at work rather than doing work

While drifting looks like fatigue, and sometimes results from fatigue, it’s a subtly different phenomenon. It’s actually closer to multitasking, but instead of doing something else, you start thinking about something else so gradually that you’re not aware until later that you’re attention has moved away from your work. Daydreaming is the most prominent instance of drifting, but sometimes it’s just thinking about something, then eliding to a related thought, then another.

The hardest part of dealing with drifting is catching yourself doing it, since most people don’t put their attention on their attention. Attention drifts incrementally, so being aware of that drift is tricky business. The fact that knowledge workers are “at work” — that they’re sitting in front of a computer — is enough to convince them that they’re actually doing work. In hindsight, of course, it’s obvious when there’s been a lack of focus. Just like after a flow state, workers coming out of a drift tend to ask themselves, “Where did the time go?” Unlike the flow state, the answer is not encouraging.

Snapping out of it

Since you can generally only be aware of the problem in hindsight, you have to address it in foresight, usually by either progressively training yourself to maintain longer intervals of focus (see the “Developing deep focus” section of Reversing the Multitasking Impulse), or by staging pattern interrupts. Here are some ways to break the spell.

Monitor your focus level in half-hour intervals. Set an alarm to go off every 30 minutes while you work. Be sure to use an alarm to avoid the distraction of checking the clock repeatedly. When the alarm goes of, rate your on-task concentration level on a scale of 1 to 5, keeping a continuous written record for the day that you can optionally transfer to graph paper. One day of data will probably be enough to identify the point where your attention flags. Wherever you see a dip, the point right before that is the best time of day to schedule your break.

Before I trained myself to increase my concentration threshold, I used to set my breaks for every hour and fifteen minutes. While 90-minute work blocks are frequently recommended, I found after monitoring that I would start drifting in those last fifteen minutes, which might add up to a couple of hours a day wasted.

Switch to paper. Sometimes drift is induced by overexposure to light-emitting screens. We experience eye strain and physically defocus from our work, then defocus mentally. You can use a notepad or a sticky note in two ways. If the nature of your work is simply writing (as opposed to working on a spreadsheet or researching with a browser), do it longhand for a while. The technical inefficiency of double-entering is offset by the lack of time wasted to drifting.

You can also use paper to “bookmark” where you are in order to take a break and resume where you left of without wasting time woolgathering. You’re basically writing a note to yourself that says, “This is what you need to do next” in anticipation of the question, “Well now, where was I?”

Think out loud. Switching from visual to auditory mode is an easy way to regroup. Even if you’re alone, ostensibly talking to yourself, vocalizing your thoughts forces you to direct your attention outward, counteracting the impulse to drift inward. You can augment the effect picking up the phone and talking to a human being, but you run the risk of socializing yourself away from your work.

Work backwards. Resuming work briefly from a different entry point — in this case, from the end — keeps your mind engaged with your project while forcing you to change perspective. If you’ve reached the halfway point of writing a novel, spend a few minutes working on the book’s last paragraph, then the penultimate paragraph, and so on. For this blog post, I added the picture and tags before writing the text, which is the opposite of my normal routine. Working from the end can help inform how you carry out the middle or beginning.

Switch to solar energy. If you typically work indoors, try working or taking a break outdoors. Beside the change of environment, getting some full-spectrum light helps relieve eye strain, and generally helps remind you that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.

(Photo credit: hubertk)

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  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Sep 25, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    I daydream often.

    I love daydreaming.

    But I do consciously limit my daydreaming sessions, so that they don’t take over my working sessions.

    I too find that shortening the work sessions is helpful, but for a slightly different reason: I simply find it more difficult to stay in peak concentration for longer than 30-45 minutes.

  • HeidiNo Gravatar // Oct 4, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    Great insights. I work in an area without windows, so when I get a chance to venture into another area with window, I’m mesmerized, and become obsessed with counting the hours minutes etc until I can leave. Going outside for lunch has the same effect on my focus.