Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Overflow: The Dangers of Excessive Focus

by Andre · 8 Comments

Distraction. Multitasking. Attention Deficit Disorder. Information overload.

These are the watchwords of the internet age. And yes, they’re very real problems. It’s so easy to become distracted, so easy for irrelevant information to trickle into our environments without vigilant gatekeeping, that it’s tempting to take blocking out all input to an extreme, turning workspaces into virtual isolation tanks. Firewalling attention can be very useful — up to a point of diminishing returns.

Mindfulness vs. Single-mindedness

Concentration is one tool in a broader toolkit, not a hammer for turning all problems into nails. It’s uncontroversial that far more workers suffer from an inability to focus than a propensity to overfocus. But focus and productivity are not synonymous. Focusing on a goal is only as worthwhile as the goal itself, and mindfulness requires that we periodically reexamine our goals, making sure that they’re still meaningful in light of what we’ve learned since we first defined them.

What could possibly be wrong with single-minded focus?

Firewalled attention can be antisocial. Over time, projecting a do-not-disturb demeanor to colleagues can be efficient at the expense of being effective. Effectiveness requires forming and maintaining good relationships, not just brisk execution of tasks. Wearing virtual blinders for too long discourages others from approaching you with input you might need, and you may find yourself forgetting the option of enlisting their help instead of trying to do everything yourself.

Lack of exploration. One of the useful appeals of “life hacks” is a fascination with process. How can I do something differently? How can I do it better? How can I do it faster? What parts of the process are irrelevant to the outcome? Exploration (what Piaget called “bricolage”) is the playful manipulation of tools and resources to test their properties and discover new possibilities. By definition, the “research and development” time of exploration is inefficient, but can lead to breakthroughs in efficiency not possible by simply accelerating established routines.

Lack of context. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the central nervous system can process about 110 bits of information per second. Listening to someone speaking — a single channel of input — requires about 60 bits per second. The experience of being totally immersed in an activity, or being “in flow,” is often described as “losing” oneself, one’s track of time, and one’s surroundings. The complete focus on the activity at hand leaves no excess capacity to monitor the surrounding context.

As transcendental as that might feel, the experience can be an end in itself, acting like a drug, which might lead to spending two or three times the amount of time necessary to complete an activity. Feeling productive and being productive are often quite different. I used to catch myself spending nine hours at a time in AutoCAD, realizing that I had achieved 90 percent of my results in the first three hours. It would’ve been smarter to split my work into three-hour sessions in order to refocus.

Balancing focus

Managing attention requires awareness of two types of focus: closed and open. Anne Zelenka calls closed focus and open focus “firewall” and “flow” modes. When efficiency is paramount, firewall your attention. Close any application that’s not relevant to the task you’re working on, turn off your phone, and turn off any and all message notifiers. You might even find it helpful to put a Post-It on your monitor or desk with your current task (“Write post: The Dangers of Excessive Focus”) as a persistent touchstone.

Flow (the type described by Zelenka, not Csikszentmihalyi) is exploration, not distraction. Workers in this mode “keep their attention diffuse and agile, looking for opportunities across different projects and domains.” Here’s an example Gina Trapani described to Tim Ferriss:

As a “web worker,” by nature I embrace serendipity and tangents, and like to keep myself open to working on unexpected things that excite me, even if they’re not in the plan. For example, a few years back, during some web surfing, I happened upon a tutorial on how to build Firefox extensions. I let myself go down the rabbit hole, so to speak, and now extension development is a big part of what I do.

Keep an eye out for serendipity. This can be like trying to trap lightning in a bottle, but it’s possible to control the process to an extent by deliberately building “slack” into your work time — like the “20 percent time” Google employees are allow to work on discretionary projects. Duff McDuffee called such breaks “scheduled wandering.”

(Photo credit: Shermeee)

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Tags: Creativity · Productivity

Comments

  • DuffNo Gravatar // Nov 14, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    I’ve been loving your blog lately. My favorite RSS read of the day/week.

    This post captures the heart of a lot of productivity discussions to me: the delicate balance between that firewalled focus (which I am pretty terrible at) and the wandering-connecting-openness (which I am really good at).

    I recently reframed my tendency to buy really cool books and not read them as my “ability to discover really cool stuff.” I’ve been using that reframe to see this as a gift, buying the books and then giving them to friends!

    In addition to finding a personal balance, and a balance that fits your job description and life goals, there is a personality balance that is right for every individual.

  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Nov 14, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    “Firewalled attention can be antisocial.”

    I once emailed a cartoon to a friend. He responded with an abrupt “look, I’m too busy for these things, would you stop sending them.” It was the first nonsense email I ever sent him, and of course the last one, and yes
    his response hurt my feelings.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Nov 14, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    @Duff: I recently reframed my tendency to buy really cool books and not read them as my “ability to discover really cool stuff.” I’ve been using that reframe to see this as a gift, buying the books and then giving them to friends!

    That’s a smart way to transform waste into a resource. I think Merlin Mann once said that he decided to turn his tendency to give unsolicited advice into a blog.

    @Vered: I once emailed a cartoon to a friend. He responded with an abrupt “look, I’m too busy for these things, would you stop sending them.”

    It’s sadly ironic that he apparently wasn’t too busy to write a brusque reply rather than hit Delete without further comment. He needs to get his priorities straight.

  • James | Dancing GeekNo Gravatar // Nov 15, 2008 at 11:39 am

    “I used to catch myself spending nine hours at a time in AutoCAD, realizing that I had achieved 90 percent of my results in the first three hours.”

    Thank you for writing that. I just realised where all my time is going. Not sure what the fix is yet, but just spotting the problem is half the challenge. I never noticed the negative side to being so focussed before. As ever, balance is key.

    So glad I subscribed.

  • Josh of Cubicle NinjasNo Gravatar // Nov 18, 2008 at 10:28 am

    These arguments against “firewalled focus” are the most asinine things I’ve read in a long time. You’re members of the cult of productivity, but are pointing out how others getting things done method is bad. Irony.

    Anti-social: Why are you defined others? Sounds like an easy excuse to work less. The most creative people (picasso, hemingway, henson) came up with their ideas alone and they inspired a generation.

    Exploration: Life-hacks are exploration, simply of new techniques. Most people give them a try and revert to what works best for them. Why are your definitions of exploration constrained?

    Context: Um, yes. But you gain the zen of transcending your surroundings. Why is enjoying what you do intently bad?

    Spending more time then needed: Yes, there is a difference between work and wasting time. If you are wasting time then you aren’t “firewall focused”. You are “wasting time wanting to be focused”.

    Focus is focus. Rebranding a verb is marketing.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Nov 18, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    @Josh: These arguments against “firewalled focus” are the most asinine things I’ve read in a long time.

    If the post was an argument against firewalled focus, rather than a reflection on its limitations, I would agree. As anyone who’s read this blog regularly knows, I’ve written extensively on the value of firewalling. I like cars with accelerators and brakes, and wouldn’t argue against either component. Their use isn’t mutually exclusive. But I am against excessive use of anything.

    Anti-social: Why are you defined others? Sounds like an easy excuse to work less. The most creative people (picasso, hemingway, henson) came up with their ideas alone and they inspired a generation.

    You’re talking about the character structure of individuals, which is something I deliberately avoided; I focused exclusively (excessively?) on process. If I have to qualify the context, the typical use case for this blog is knowledge work, not artistic endeavors whose social context provides more latitude for idiosyncrasies. In architecture, for instance, it’s certainly not the case that “the most creative people” — Gaudi, Gehry, Wright, Foster, Ando, etc. — preferred to work in isolation. But I wouldn’t conclude from those counterexamples that teamwork is best creative process. There is no one best way. I actually prefer to work in isolation myself, and currently have the luxury of doing so. When I worked in an office, that wasn’t the case. I had to answer to others, despite my personal preferences.

    Exploration: Life-hacks are exploration, simply of new techniques. Most people give them a try and revert to what works best for them. Why are your definitions of exploration constrained?

    I’ll risk being pedantic by saying that life hacks themselves are the result of exploration, not the process itself. Some types of work are inherently exploratory, like the arts and sciences. If you spend all day in exploring, challenging and creating new possibilities, you’re not the one who needs to hear about the value of exploration. But if you’re a manager, a coder or an attorney, it helps to take a step back from time to time and reflect on your process, which is something that firewalled attention in excess militates against. You can’t get a wide-angle view with a telephoto lens.

    Context: Um, yes. But you gain the zen of transcending your surroundings. Why is enjoying what you do intently bad?

    You answered your own question at “yes. But . . .” I wrote why in the passage you’re presumably responding to. Context would be things like holding to deadlines, remembering to pick up the kids, and responding to questions from clients, coworkers and bosses involved in the project. If everything gets handled properly and you’re enjoying what you do intently, then you’re golden.

    Spending more time then needed: Yes, there is a difference between work and wasting time. If you are wasting time then you aren’t “firewall focused”. You are “wasting time wanting to be focused”.

    Very true.

    Focus is focus. Rebranding a verb is marketing.

    Modifying a verb with an adjective is English.

  • Focusing on Projects, One Action at a Time | Tools for Thought // Nov 25, 2008 at 11:48 am

    [...] recent comment on my post, Overflow: The Dangers of Excessive Focus, criticized my observation that “Firewalled focus can be antisocial” (emphasis added), [...]

  • Champions in the workplaceNo Gravatar // Dec 2, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    @Duff – I also like to buy lots of cool books, and only read some of them. It has to resonate in the bookstore before I buy, and then again when I take it home.

    I think of frog kissing, it takes some effort to find your prince(ss).