Attention Might be Overrated

Clive Thompson’s recent article in Wired magazine encourages us to let our minds idle or wander. In fact, he cites research that says we can’t keep our attention from wandering. Our minds drift away from the task at hand one third of the time. Brain scientists now believe that time spent daydreaming is used by our brains to process long term memories and tackle problem solving tasks.

Now I didn’t need any (probably tax funded) scientific research to recognize the benefit of daydreaming and mind wandering. I’m an expert at it. I long ago abandoned the idea that it is in my best interest to attempt to multi-task. I like to focus really hard on a single thing, but for just a brief amount of time. It turns out that’s what the folks who think they are good multi-taskers are really doing. They’ve just mastered the time slicing better than the rest of us. I still think they lose some productivity.

I focus for that short period of time — measured in minutes more often than hours — then I take a break and let my brain do whatever it thinks it needs to do before I throw the next item of attention at it. The process keeps me fresh, although it tends to annoy those around me who still believe that idle time is wasteful time, or even evil time.

Here’s my suggestion for those of you who grind away hour after hour trying to whittle away at your To-Do list: Take a break! Walk around the block. Have a snack. Chit chat with a co-worker, even if that means interrupting his attempt to focus too. In the end, you’ll get just as much done and you’ll have more fun doing it. You might even solve that problem that has been perplexing you for a while.

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