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Attention Management

Lesson 9 from: Design Systems That Fuel Your Creativity

Srinivas Rao

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Lesson Info

9. Attention Management

Next Lesson: Develop A Flow

Lesson Info

Attention Management

We've talked a lot about environments and, particularly your tech environment. And that makes a natural segue into something that all of us have to deal with in the world that we live in today. And that is, our ability to manage our attention. As we talked about before, creative work requires your ability to focus on something for an extended period of time while also remaining present. And at the same time we live in a world with endless amounts of distractions that compel us to multitask, causing our attention to shift from one thing to another. And when I asked Chris Bailey about this, this is what he had to say. People suck at managing their attention. Some people are great at it but, we're surrounded by millions of things, not only outside our heads but also inside our heads. One of the best things that somebody can do to build up how much attention they bring to everything around them, is to only work on one thing at one time. And so I think multitasking is, I don't think this,...

science thinks this. Multitasking is one of the biggest things that is holding people back from accomplishing more over the course of the day. Because it's like what I mentioned earlier. When we multitask instead of investing 100% of our energy in one direction, excuse me, instead of investing a 100% of our energy in one direction, we spread it across a hundred different things at once. This is the problem I think. You know, we spread our energy in so many different directions, that we can't, we move a millimeter in a thousand different directions, instead of moving a mile in one. Anybody had the experience over the course of a day? Mmhmm. Okay. So this is toxic for numerous reasons. Not only because of the fact that we move a millimeter in a thousand different directions instead of a mile in one. But because of the fact that multitasking basically results in what is known as attention residue. Anytime you shift your attention from something that your deeply focused on to something else. For example you might do a quick peak at social media, or your inbox. And you return to whatever you were working on originally. And let's say there was something in your inbox that you couldn't deal with. Now what's happened is that your attention has been scattered. And the thing that you were initially working on suffers as a result. You get a degradation in performance on the thing you were originally working on. So now instead of doing one thing really well, your suddenly doing multiple things really poorly. I'd be curios to hear about your own experiences with this, I know that you've all said the you have experienced it. So tell me about a time you've multi tasked, and explain to me what it was like when you returned to the original task. Yeah Reva. So, I mean, as a sole entrepreneur, I feel like I'm always multitasking, and it's a struggle that, in designate a certain amount of time for this task, then shift to this one and this one so, in a given day it's like okay, I'll wake up and be like, alright I'm gonna have my focus time for myself. I have like an hour in the morning which I'm really grateful for, and then the chaos starts to ensue. I'm like, alright, there's 20 emails from yesterday that I didn't get to. So start on those, then like, oh the notifications show up over here, and then it's like, oh I forgot I didn't finish that social media post, let me get that done, and I'm just pinging all over the place between, client session there, or I have to eat. There's follow up on the comment there and, yeah. Yeah, Mark what about you? For me a lot of times I'm working on a complex problem, I have to set aside time, were I'm not gonna answer my phone for say an hour. But I'll hear it vibrate, I look at it. Decide to pick up that phone, and you take that phone call, and it can be two hours before you get back to the task, and even if you had spent 30 minutes on it, you have to go back to square one and do that 30 minutes over again. So one five minute phone call, could be a two hour wipe out. Yeah, the thing that people often underestimate is, let's say you did go to your inbox and, you realized I can look at this thing, but I don't have to deal with it now. Just because you don't have to deal with it now, it doesn't mean that your attention towards that thing hasn't been scattered. So suddenly you have this thing in you inbox that needs to be dealt with, but you can't deal with it right now. And then you come back to the thing you were originally working on. But while you're back at the thing you're originally working on, you're thinking about the thing that you can't deal with, so as a result you suck at doing both of those things. Alright, and this happens over and over and over again. So let's talk about how to actually improve our attention span. And this is something very deeply personal to me because I'm somebody who has a very short attention span, I got diagnosed with ADD. Part of the reason I got fired from so many jobs was the fact that I could not sit still and I couldn't stay in an office all day largely because of my attention span. But I've managed to train it and improve over the course of the year. So I want to talk about a few ways I've managed to do that. The first believe it or not is meditation. Many people who are previous CreativeLive instructors talked about this. When it comes to meditation, I think the thing that is most important really, is frequency of a meditation practice, more than length. So I wanna give you a couple of quick tips that will help you with developing meditation practice. The first thing is to schedule time for it. We talked earlier about deliberately designing part of your day. I do this first thing in the morning. Your better off doing it two minutes seven days a week than you would be for 30 minutes once a week. This is the thing I think people often struggle with is they fell that they have to sit there in silence for 25 or 30 minutes, when they can barely sit still for two or three minutes. So if you make it infrequent and do it consistently, or if you make it consistent, but not really long, you'll be amazed by what you can do with it. So I wanna give you one other tip for meditation and this I have to credit to Steven Kotler for because it was his idea, and I got it from a conversation that I saw him have with Chase. He has this idea called box breathing. And it was amazing what he was able to accomplish, with people who had a really hard time sitting still for ten minutes, in fact, let's actually give it a try. So basically we're gonna do is, we're gonna have you close your eyes, and your gonna inhale for a count of four, your gonna hold for a count of four, your gonna exhale for a count of four, and then hold for another count of four. And effectively the reason it's called box breathing is your basically drawing a box around your chest. So let's try it for just a count of four, which is really simple, and then we'll do it again and we'll do it for a count of five, and then I'll ask you about your experience. So let's begin. Alright. So, what you'll notice is that if you can do that even for two minutes, you'll be amazed at how quickly 10 minutes will pass by. I remember thinking 10 minutes would fell like an eternity, but when I started doing that, it blew my mind in terms of how quickly the 10 minutes passed. But not only that, because of the fact that you have to keep count, it forces you to focus your attention on one thing. And that's really what training your attention span with meditation is about. Is learning to focus on just one thing, for even a short period of time because you have to be able to do it for a short period time if you wanna do it for an extended period of time. One of the other really big things that I talk about, is this idea of one focused hour a day of uninterrupted creation. Key word being uninterrupted. So most people think to themselves great I can manage an hour a day that's no problem. But if you hour a day is perpetually interrupted by notifications and phone calls you've effectively undone the whole purpose of doing this. But if you could work for one focused hour a day, completely uninterrupted, you'll be amazed at what you can accomplish. People have written books using this. I told you earlier that a good amount of my body of work, has largely been built in about two hours a day. And we're talking multiple books and 700 podcasts so, that's how effective it can be when your actually able to focus with zero interruptions. Because what happens when you have zero interruptions is you go from focus into flow. When you go from focus into flow you start to get astronomical gains in productivity, creativity, and everything else we've been talking about. The other piece of this is to single task. As you heard, what Chris Bailey talk about, we're gonna talk about that as well. When you single task, you basically end up not paying attention to multiple things, but one way to do that is to actually work in full screen mode, on the various tools that you use. Because once you work in full screen mode there's nothing else that can compete for your attention. You don't have anymore visual input coming at you trying to distract you. So I use distraction free writing tools. I use a tool called Mac Journal. The only thing you can do in Mac Journal is write. It's literally like hacking into the Matrix. It's black screen with green text. You can bold things, but you can't do anything other than write. You can't format stuff, that's the whole purpose of distraction free writing tools. I've heard Tim Ferris say that he actually uses a computer that has no internet connection what so ever. All it does is, it has on it is a word processor, when he writes his books. And you know, you've read Tim Ferriss' books, their in depth, and clearly he's produced a substantial body of work. So I wanna talk a little bit about avoiding your phone during down time. Now what's interesting, is that we think that the only time that not using our phone and not caving into sources of distraction matters is when we're trying to get our work done. Well that it turns out is not true. If you are using your phone during down time, most of us when we go to the grocery store for example, we, all of us are guilty of this, we check our phones while we're waiting in line. Or we're sitting in a car, or we're sitting at the airport or we're sitting in any kind of line, our natural instinct in our culture is, you know I'm bored let me look at something. And Cal will actually talk about this. Well turns out that when you do this on a regular basis, what your effectively doing, is your training yourself to have a shorter and shorter attention span and to keep giving into sources of distraction until that becomes your default. So when you attempt to go sit down and focus, the fact that you have been using your phone during your down time, ends up resulting in a really challenging time focusing on whatever it is your trying to focus. I've done experiments with this where I've not used my phone during downtime for days on end when I've been on a surf or snowboard trip, and I'm amazed at what happens when I sit down at the computer, I can focus for two or three hours. But if you actually spend a day looking at your phone, particularly before you go to sleep at night, if you spend hours on your phone going from one source of distraction to another, you'll be amazed at how distracted you'll be when you wake up in them morning. So definitely try to avoid using your phone during downtime. Cal Newport basically says this is the cognitive equivalent of being and athlete who smokes. So if you're an athlete who smokes, when you show up for your actual game your performance is gonna suffer, and the same thing applies here. So the other thing we wanna talk about is how you reduce input into your life. So we have a ton of different input coming at us. And input basically is a big drain on our attention. So there's three types of input the first being visual. Visual input is literally anything that is in your field of vision. That means the tools that are on your desk whether it be a cup of coffee, whether it be something that your eating, whether it be books, then it's also all the things that are coming at you from your screen. Whether that's icons on your desktop, whether that's notifications that are coming in, whether it's the apps that you have open, whether its you have browser tabs open. Anything that you see is a form of visual input, okay. Then you have what we call auditory input, which we talked about in the sound environment piece. That's literally anything you hear. Whether that be notifications, which make a lot of sounds often. A lot of people actually don't disable the sounds, that are in their notifications. It could be your phone ringing, it could be kids screaming in the background. All of these things are auditory inputs. And then finally the last one is what we call Kinesthetic inputs. And that's how the environment feels. Whether the chair that your in is comfortable, whether the rooms hot or cold. And the goal here more than anything is to reduce input as much as possible. To reduce the number of visual inputs. When we do something like work in full screen mode, with our tools, what we're doing is we're reducing visual input. When we clear our desk of everything other than whatever we need, we're reducing visual input. When you use distraction blockers, you're reducing visual input. Because one of the things that I've said is that if you want to increase your attention span, then decrease the number of things that are competing for it. And visual input is often one of the things that competes for it the most. There's so much that we're taking in all at once, it's no wonder that we're having a difficult time getting the things we're trying to get done. Same thing with sound input. Part of what we do when we use noise cancellation headphones, like we talked about, is we're effectively reducing the auditory input, so that's it's limited to only a handful of auditory inputs. Because there's only so much that you can pay attention to at any given time. But if you have 10 browser tabs open, you have messenger open, and you have your inbox open, and you're trying to get something done, think about the amount of visual input that is coming at you, that is making it difficult for you to get this one thing done. Make sense? Great. Auditory input, fairly straight forward, the sounds you hear, we just drown out the sound of every single thing around us. And as a result you're able to manage your attention much more effectively. Kinesthetic input like I said is really how you feel, is the room hot, is the room cold, is the chair you're sitting in comfortable? For example my Ikea chair which I was telling you about earlier, that I fell out of. That's an example of Kinesthetic input that I chose not to pay attention to and the result is that I fell out of the chair. But brand new chair, Kinesthetic input is reduced so it's no longer a distraction. Everyone of these inputs is either something that's empowering your, or disempowering you. It's either a distraction, or something that is making you productive. And the easiest way to basically increase your productivity and improve your attention span is to reduce the amount of input that is coming at you. Adam Gazalley who's a neuroscientist at UCSF says put away all non essential work material on your desk leaving only materials you need to complete a task. I tried this for a few weeks and I was blow away by, how much more I got done, and how much less time it took. Simply by reducing those things. I wanna talk a little bit about how you reduce a few other, the input also from your screen. There's a tool called HiddenMe. How many of you have desktop icons all over your computer desktop? Like hundreds of them, or folders or files? Alright, so, the cool thing about a tool like HiddenMe is it basically allows you to hide the entire desktop and what's even cooler about it is then you can put some sort of motivational message on your desktop. So now you have a visual input that is inspiring and motivating and you basically don't have all of this clutter. If you think about it, if we had our physical space have that much stuff all over our desk, we'd never get anything done. But we don't have that attitude towards our digital space even though we should. So effectively what you wanna do is you want to reduce all non essential work material. And as I've said, if you want to increase your attention span the key to doing that, is to reduce the competition for it. So I wanna turn it over to you guys, what are the things that you find compete for your attention, everyday? In terms of visual and auditory inputs. Reva let's start with you. Going back to the desk space, there's books, there's business cards, there's my laptop, there's keys, there's you know, when I'm sitting there, it's basically my whole life, distracting me. Mark what about you? Try to limit this but, unopened mail. Just a stack of things that aren't open is distracting. Yeah. And email newsletters, like, email newsletters and blogs and things I've gotta clear it all out. Absolutely. Old amazon delivery boxes. (everyone laughs) That are kind of just stacked up, I need to get rid of those. Yeah. I have a couple of legacy computer gadgets on my desk that probably need to go. They used to serve a purpose. Definitely the desktop. Organizing the digital and also the physical desktops. Yeah same here, desktop. I also have this fear of losing whatever it was that I was looking at, and interacting with. So my husband is always on me to get rid of all the browser tabs that I have open. Yeah the browser tabs in particular. It's amazing, I've seen people who have dozens of browser tabs open. And when they tell me they have trouble managing their attention of focusing, I think to myself, well yeah obviously, that seems pretty clear. Browser tabs are notorious. In fact there's a Chrome extension called One Tab. Which allows you only to open on browser tab at a time. That actually I found was actually annoying because there were times when I need to have one than one tab open but, in general the idea that most people who talk about this promote, is the idea of only using one browser tab at a time because it does actually force you to single task. I was gonna say the browser tab thing, I'm notorious for having hundreds open not just dozens. So its a good reminder. And then the other thing I'll I add is, you know I have the opportunity in starting a new job to redefine my desk space. So this is giving me lots of ideas to, I'll start bare, to keep it in that regard.

Ratings and Reviews

Melissa Dinwiddie

What a fabulous class! Srini covered one actionable idea after another that can be implemented immediately to fuel creativity right out of the gate. And the beautiful thing is that each tactic builds on all the others, so every little step you take will improve your overall systems. I loved the stories from his podcast and the guest speakers, too. My only complaint was that some of the slides had a lot of text on them -- too much to read. Other than that, it was well-organized, thoughtful, and super useful. I've already recommended it to several people in passing.

Kathryn Kilner

This is a great course for anyone pursuing creative work. It is easy to get distracted in the modern world and Srinivas provides practical insights and tested systems for empowering creatives to focus and get more done. Although I've read a lot about how to optimize my habits, I was challenged in this course to think differently about how I structure my time and my work space. The changes I've made have helped me be more productive.

a Creativelive Student

I've watched many CreativeLive courses. While I find many interesting, there are only a handful that capture my attention from beginning to end. This was one of those. The speaker mentioned countless gems that were applicable not only to creativity and productivity, but to how one lives daily life. There were multiple "deep thoughts" and several practical ways to alter one's environments (including physical and mental) in order to enhance productivity and general well-being. I've already implemented a few suggestions, and am anxious to revisit my notes on this course repeatedly.

Student Work