In most digital workplaces, there’s an unwritten understanding that when someone has headphones on, they’re not to be disturbed. Most of the time, digital workers recognise that sometimes you need to get into a productive flow state, and that means being allowed and encouraged to immerse yourself in the task at hand, undisturbed.
Flow is important to web workers, because it’s hard to come by. As digital knowledge wranglers, just like the machines at our fingertips, we’re constantly context-switching, running multiple processes at once, streaming concurrent thoughts and projects and activities in real time, trying to devote sufficient time and attention to each, but usually failing because of unrealistic timescales, lack of data to complete the task in hand or multiple competing priorities.
Context switching is exhausting, especially if you’re doing it all day long. It takes effort to figure out the context when someone comes up to you and starts talking about that meeting or project, and you’re supposed to instantly know
a) who they are
b) what they’re referring to
c) all background knowledge about the context which may enable you to make a useful or insightful contribution.
I often find myself wishing people came with identifying headers, like email. Just a simple whois with a sensible subject line would do wonders for my ability to react reasonably and rapidly to a distraction, rather than staring blankly for a few moments while my brain variously clears to one side the other things I’ve been processing, then cycles through knowledge files to find pertinent entries, all of the while also trying to summon the person’s name and context based only on their appearance (I’m terrible with names) and the words “that thing we were talking about the other day.”
The phrase “continuous partial attention” was invented by Linda Stone in 1998, and it gets more true with every passing year, perfectly describing the constant infograzing state of the digital generation.
So for the most part, web workers need ways to signal to their colleagues that they are trying to crack on with something without distraction. For many, the universal symbol is ‘headphones on’ – even if you’re not listening to anything, it’s a way of visibly signalling to the world that your attention is in another place. Your body may remain in the room, at your desk, but your attention is in the task. This is what Bruce Sterling means when he wrote about “cyberspace” as the place your attention is when you’re focused on something else:
Cyberspace is the “place” where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person’s phone, in some other city. The place between the phones.
— Bruce Sterling, from the introduction to The Hacker Crackdown [PDF link to whole book]
So we work much of the time in cyberspace, trying to find focus and flow, trying to escape from constant distractions and demands on attention.
Of course, there are exceptional circumstances which mean it’s OK for someone to break into the attention zone. Indeed, we give certain people specific permission to breach the bulkhead. We switch on our “busy” signals on GTalk, but our loved ones know that it’s OK to ignore it. We set up our phones to divert all calls except those from the boss. We instruct our desk phones to deliver a voice message to all calls telling them to email instead. Then we sift through emails when time and attention allow.
We generally prefer forms of contact which can be skimmed, triaged and prioritised. We want to be in control of our time, in a world which makes it increasingly difficult to be so. We tend not to like interruptive, demanding contact like phone or face-to-face disruption, in which someone else takes control of the when, where and how much time the query will take – as well as what else we’ll be able to do during the contact.
Face to face interruptions can’t be compartmentalised, multi-tasked or pomadoroed: it seems rude, when in fact the imposition is on the part of the disturber, not the disturbee. But it’s hard to tell someone to IM instead when they’re looming over your desk. As a result, we digivores get a reputation for being anti-social; for preferring email to facetime; for conducting hour-long sporadic conversations via instant message rather than spending ten minutes on the phone.
So in a distracting and demanding world, we crave the perfect, all-too-fleeting feeling of flow, when dedicated attention combines with lack of distraction to form a productive, devoted, happy state. Nothing beats it: fingers flying, synapses firing: words (or code, or ideas, or photoshop actions, or whatever you do) spilling productively, consistently and cogently onto the screen almost as fast as you can process them.
That’s why dedicated attention time is important, and why geeks (technical, creative and otherwise) resent distraction. We’re not just grumpy sods: we need mental space to focus. Music through headphones helps. Switching off the IM and email clients helps. Making yourself unavailable to the world despite your continued presence in the office helps too, but can prove more problematic.
A year or so ago, in the face of a writing project which demanded lots of head-down time immersed in passages and focused on the screen, I made a little makeshift notice to put beside my desk. It said “Trying to concentrate, please don’t disturb”. I saw it as the physical equivalent of the notice on my GTalk status (“Trying to concentrate: email me instead”) or the voice message I’d set (“Hello, you can leave me a message if you want but I’d really prefer an email to…”).
It was small, and people didn’t notice it. I felt too much of a sourpuss to point it out to them, so it became pointless.
A week later, I came in one morning and discovered a new sign beside my desk, made (I think ) by a sneaky elf in the design team who sit not far from me. In brand-consistent font on a hot pink background, the giant-Toblerone-shaped sign said on each face: “Meg is trying to concentrate”. There could be no mistaking it from any angle. The message was clear.
I’ve tried to enforce a good routine with the sign over the last year. I only use it when I’m actually trying to concentrate on something specific (not multiple things which are distractable). I use it in combination with headphones as a double signal to the world of my unavailability. I take it down when I’m done focussing.
Here are the interactions I tend to get, when the sign is up. Each of these is accompanied by hand waving designed to induce me to take off the massive headphones I am wearing when the sign is up:
- Are you actually trying to concentrate?
- I like your sign.
- Hahaha. Meg is trying to concentrate! Very good! Does it work?
- I know you’re trying to concentrate [waves dismissively at sign] but I’ve got a question about…
- Are you interruptable?
- Sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to talk about…
- Ooh, where did you get your sign from? Did you make it?
- Can we talk about….[no reference to sign at all]
and perhaps most often:
Why do they do this?
I’m at a loss to know what to do next. Current favoured options include:
- A Lucy-style “The Doctor Is In/Out” sign
- Ignoring people if they ignore the sign when it’s up
- Teenage-style eye-rolling and deep sighing when interrupted
- Getting a bigger sign
- Amending the existing sign to include the words “Please do not disturb”
- A deli-counter take a number/now serving machine
If all else fails, I’m going to get a big piece of black cloth, and attach one end using velcro to the outer rim of my monitor, and drape the other end over my head, like a Victorian photographer’s light hood. This idea is, of course, based on the popular toddler belief that if I can’t see them, they can’t see me to interrupt. It also has the added bonus of shutting out all non-digital stimulus, which might help me to focus a bit better.
How do you find focus in a world of competing attention? Any suggestions?