I struggle with attention deficit. Often this manifests through Twitter. I’ll find myself scrolling it with no memory of how I got there. And no particular interest. Just scrolling.
This is not great. First of all, it’s a waste of time. But that’s okay – I’ve made a decision to continue having a Twitter account, and some amount of wasted time is a consequence of that. Sue me: I love posting.
The bigger problem is that whenever I unintentionally end up on Twitter, even if I only end up being there for a couple seconds, my whole mental stack gets disrupted. I lose context. If the thing I was doing was a thing that required a lot of abstraction juggling – such as coding or writing – the bowling pins may have already tumbled down by the time I even realize I’m scrolling Twitter again.
Impulse helps a lot. It gives me a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back to my prior train of thought. But still: the mental context has largely dissipated. I have to build my momentum back up again. If this happens many times a day, it’s a serious leak of labor power.
Like all problems, this one can be solved with spreadsheets.
Okay, not solved. But maybe understood. Maybe. In part.
About a week ago, I logged out of Twitter on my work laptop. Now, every time I go to check Twitter, instead of wonderful, infinitely scrolling little posts, I see this:
This immediately jars me out of my reverie. “Whoops!” I think, “This isn’t what I meant to be doing.” I can go back to the task at hand instead of wasting time on Twitter. Of course, it’s already too late for the cognitive context – that turned to salt the instant I opened the new browser tab. But at least now I can learn something from these attention faults.
I started a spreadsheet called Twitter Attempts. Over the workday, every time I see the Twitter login screen, I take it as a reminder to update this Twitter Attempts spreadsheet. I log the timestamp of the attention fault, as well as a note about what I was doing right beforehand. Then I go back to what I was doing. The spreadsheet looks roughly like so:
I’ve found this technique pretty illuminating.
Attention faults have precipitating events
I used to think of attention deficit as something like getting in a car accident. My attention is puttering along all lah-dee-dah, then pow! a different thing is happening.
The data lead(s) me to believe it’s not really like that. Instead of being spontaneous and random, attention faults are almost invariably preceded by some specific precipitating event. In other words, when I see the Twitter login screen and redirect myself to my spreadsheet, I can nearly always recall a particular event that seems to have “caused” the attention fault.
I call this sequence – precipitating event followed by attention fault – an attentional sneeze.
If you’ll forgive the grossness of the metaphor, you could kind of think of a precipitating event as the pepper and checking Twitter as the snot. Sorry.
I review my spreadsheet at the end of every week. Here are some (synthesized; not verbatim) examples of the kinds of “peppers” I tend to find in the Notes column:
- Just submitted a pull request
- Just received an annoying Slack message
- Just shifted from an emotionally fraught topic to a safe topic in meeting
- Just finished writing a paragraph of documentation
An attention fault basically never just feels like, “I don’t know what happened! I was in the middle of typing a sentence and suddenly I was on Twitter.” This is surprising and I didn’t know it before. Hooray for spreadsheets!
Peppers fall into some categories
Here are some examples, straight from the data, of some of these pepper events:
- somebody talking to me in zoom => that person talking to someone else instead
- shift from asking in slack a question about git, to refactoring my log pipeline work
- emotional shift from vulnerable team convo to administrivia
- finished mtg w/ arthur
- shift from asking for help to waiting for a reply
As I look at these entries and many more like them, there seem to emerge a few patterns. Peppers usually involve things like:
- A shift between pragmatic and intuitive modes of thought
- An emotional shift
- The beginning of an interval of waiting
- The completion of a task
These categories overlap quite a bit. In any case, they’re all boundaries between one mental state and another.
Sliding activation energy
Some days I feel centered and focused; other days I feel flustered and preoccupied. Distractable.
I’ve noticed that, on days characterized by high distractibility, the bar for what counts as “completion of a task” (the 4th type of pepper event) becomes a much lower bar. For example, suppose I’m replying to comments on a pull request. On a low-distractibility day I might finish replying to all the comments in the PR before checking Twitter. On a high-distractibility day, however, I might check Twitter after every reply! (But still – never in the middle of one.)
I don’t know where to go with any of this. It’s food for thought.
I will say that this particular well of data dries up pretty fast. There’s a positive feedback loop: I’m not logged into Twitter, so my mind eventually acclimates to this and substitutes some other type of flinch instead. As a result, fewer Twitter login attempts; as a result of that, stronger reinforcement that Twitter is no longer a viable distraction.
Another limitation of this avenue of investigation is its vulnerability to the availability heuristic. Just because I think a given attentional sneeze was caused by a particular pepper event, doesn’t mean it really was. But hey – all I have to work with is my own perceptions.
At any rate, the exercise has already been pretty worth it. And if any of this sounds interesting, I’d be super keen to hear how this experiment goes for you!