Part 1: Does Your Work Feel Sacred? If not, this might be the reason
Have you ever found yourself completely “in the zone” when working on a project? That blissful state where time seems to stand still and all other worries are temporarily forgotten. This is the state of mind the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously coined as Flow, which he defines as a complete absorption in what one does. . . So there you are working away in an elevated state of concentration and absorption in your work when you are abruptly interrupted and all of your productivity grinds to a halt.
This happened to me recently, though the object of my rapturous attention was not a carefully perfected golf swing and it wasn’t a lovingly crafted work of art (typical examples of things that can induce the state of Flow) but was instead a mere spreadsheet. I say “mere” spreadsheet, though this particular spreadsheet was not your average compilation of rows and columns — but rather a carefully rendered labor of love with its formulas, pivot table and inserted pie graph all working in perfect harmony — or at least almost perfect harmony. Anyone who spends any amount of screen time working in Excel can appreciate, to some extent, the agony and ecstasy this particular software can inspire. I remember moving back to a previous tab to figure out just why my formula was returning an error when … my phone started vibrating. It was a text message from my brother asking me a simple question about getting a key to him so that he could house sit on the weekend. I knew that I could respond rapidly and with an economy of mental exertion and soon be back to that troublesome formula…
Not So Fast, Mr. Hope
What happened next is something that I know you can identify with. I directed my attention to the text, fired off a simple response and went back to my screen only to realize that I had lost my place and could not remember exactly where I had been when I ran into my calculation woes. What should have been a simple aside ended up completely derailing my train of thought and had me searching for at least 10 minutes to get back on track. One thirty-second text message had ended up costing me 20x in productivity.
I eventually found my place and got back into my project, not thinking much about the whole thing until a few days later when I listened to an interview where the concept of attention residue came up.
What is Attention Residue?
Attention residue is something University of Minnesota business professor, Dr. Sophie Leroy, writes about in a research paper documenting a study in which she gave participants a task to complete, but systematically interrupted half of the participants to solve a simple puzzle before they had finished the task — while letting the other half of the participants complete the first task before solving the puzzle. As for her results, she clearly concluded: “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task.”
When I talk about attention residue I liken the attention we give to one project to tree sap. Have you ever set up a Christmas tree, accidentally ended up with sap on your hands, and then tried to move on to another project? Whatever you touch after you’ve worked with that tree is going to stick to your hands — and the more sap there is, the stickier your hands will be. Think of Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation trying to read a magazine in bed after putting the big Christmas tree into the living room. He wasn’t even able to read because the magazine, the magazine inserts and eventually the lamp ended up stuck to his hands.
Leroy’s research demonstrates that, like Clark Griswold, when we switch from one task to another, the more residue that is carried over, the harder it becomes for us to take on that next task.
“The only factor becoming scarce in a world of abundance is human attention.”
What does this have to do with your work feeling sacred?
You may be wondering what all this talk about disruption has to do with the sacredness of our work. I would argue that it has a great deal to do with it. This post is the first in a series this week on the topic of disruption and how it affects our focus, our productivity and even our ability to recognize the accomplishments we regularly make in our work.
In the opening paragraph of Dr. Leroy’s research paper she quotes Kevin Kelly from Wired who states: “The only factor becoming scarce in a world of abundance is human attention.” It may be becoming scarce but there are a number of specific things we can do to increase its abundance and that is what we will be digging into later this week.
Later we will be talking more about what Georgetown University computer-science professor Cal Newport calls Deep Work. Newport writes about this in his new book: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World which uses actual people to illustrate how much more effective we can be in our work when we create an environment in which we can focus on a single task and see it to its completion. While this may seem like an unrealistic goal in our modern workforce in which multi-tasking is becoming increasingly normalized, Newport argues that it is more important than ever for us to look closely at what our true work is and how we can find opportunities to approach it more deeply.
“But you haven’t seen my workplace!”
It’s true I have probably not seen your particular workplace, but before you completely shut me out and tell me that you cannot possibly perform ‘deep work’ because of the demands of your job, keep in mind that I regularly teach this topic to healthcare workers in hospitals. Whether you work as an ER nurse or an air traffic controller, I would argue that there are some steps you can take to allow more immersion and fewer distractions in the work you do.
What can we do about it?
Before we get into what to do about it in the next part of this series, I am going to tell you what not to do if you are feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and your work is feeling less than sacred. I will not only share some of the mistakes that people regularly make when trying to find more heart in their work, but I will also be sharing some of the mistakes that I have made personally, so you don’t have to make them yourself.