Why switching attention from one thing to another wrecks your productivity

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/01/15/why-switching-attention-from-o.html


I can say it does at times. I would get all into and making progress on a complex server build then get priority break fix work dropped in my lap and after wrangling that it took at least an hour to decompress and figure out where I stopped on what it was I was doing before.


The second rule is to “embrace boredom.”

Is this a corollary to Dunbar’s theory in “Catch-22”?

(The character Dunbar cultivated boredom because when you are bored time seems to pass more slowly. So by being bored, he was extending his life.)


Hey, what an interesting article on BoingBoing! … oh damn…


Painfully true. One of the benefits of ADD is the ability to hyper focus on tasks. The monkey’s paw of it is that superpower is incredibly difficult to control.

It’s like curing cancer by causing it, or some Dave Chappelle hour long punchline.


I’m curious to see if there’s evidence for these rules, or if he’s pulled them directly out of his ass. I’m definitely not curious enough to spend money on a book that I’m almost certainly going to loathe, however.

Switch attention? You mean like I do every time I’m visiting BoingBoing?

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Over the past 10 years, I’ve morphed from a gainfully-employed full-time bread-winning software developer who snobbishly refused to touch a cell phone, to a smartphone-toting stay-at-home Dad.

I don’t need a lot of convincing to accept the points Newport makes in this little snippet, my experience illustrates them too clearly.

Now that my kid is finally in school during the day, I have a few clear hours of time every day, but I still can’t get anything done. I feel my ability to concentrate long and/or deeply on a complex problem or project has just been wrecked. Deleted. Gone as if I had never possessed it.

Which bothers me very – whoops, gotta go.

And jokes aside, yes, unfortunately, “A directory of mostly wonderful things” is going to become part of your problem if you use it to “bathe yourself in novel stimuli” every time you have a spare bit of downtime. Particularly if it’s part of a web of links to other things, and tied to a social component. Like BoingBoing is.

There’s probably a healthier way to engage with social media, news feeds, and their old-school predecessors (like group blogs, like Boing Boing). How much would we like to bet that RSS readers, which the big internet/media companies have been sort of pushing aside, are a part of a good solution? It’s not in Facebook’s short-term interest for you to “engage” with your job.


I came to quote this, but you saved me the search!

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One thing I miss since getting medicated, is the ability to crank out new-technology prototypes over the course of a week. The thing that makes staying on medication: My life is more predictable for my spouse, and I can usually chose what I’m working on (even though it can take months to have the same progress).


Results may vary. For me keeping the petulant child part of my brain distracted helps the purposeful part of my brain get things done.

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Personally, I think that — oh wait — I’ll be right back.

A rule of thumb I’ve heard for programmers is that a 5 minute interruption is 30 minutes of lost productivity, because it takes that long to really get back into “the zone”. I assume a longer interruption would have an even greater effect.

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This is why some people need to shut the door and turn off the phone to create an undisturbed block of time, in which to catch up or get that really important thing done.

Hmm. It’s a fine line, though, between hyperfocusing and making progress and failing to switch tasks when productivity falls off. Personally, I need something happening to catch my “secondary attention” when I am deep in code. TV news, nature docs, music - something to catch my attention as soon as it starts to wander - otherwise I’ll either end up in a dark code hole or find something MORE distracting to focus on.


I’ve been experimenting with this. Streaming documentaries on Youtube in the background while I’m working on terminally boring SEO stuff. It sort of works for me.

Piping music into headphones like I did when I was a kid seems to majorly impair my thinking, but background noise from across the room is mostly ok.

There is evidence - various psychology research projects that actually tested people with an without task-switching.

The multitasking myth is an invention of crappy managers who fantasize that if workers switch tasks fast enough, they can squeeze several projects into the work week without blowing the deadlines on all of them.

It has much in common with schemes for perpetual motion machines, and over-unity power generation.

eta: See also the myth that successful people only need a few hours of sleep each night.


Task switching sure, I know that. It’s specifically the stuff about being conditioned to look at phones when bored, etc that seems like something like the author pulled directly out of his ass.

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