Your Attentional Cadence


Hi Friends,

I want you to imagine that you’re standing in front of a field of tall grass—tall enough to tickle your armpits. There are two clear paths in front of you—roughly one metre apart. They are nearly identical but will, ultimately, take you to different places.

Your commitment begins as soon as you step onto one of the paths. If you change your mind, you can always stomp on over to the other path—or back out and start again.

That’s our setup. That’s where we begin.

I’m going to ask you to stay with me in Imagination Land for a moment. But let’s make this a little more practical. So, the paths remain as-envisioned. But now one of them takes you to the completion of an important piece of work. Something that will give you real traction in your life. And the other one? Social media rabbit holes and other shenanigans. It will ultimately leave you with bupkis.

So, there you are, staring at the two paths—one toward traction, the other toward distraction. That’s when the mayor of Imagination Land shows up and asks you if you’d like to make any changes to the landscape. You would!

Your odds of staying on your preferred path are already decent. But attention can wander. So, you decide to design some constraints. Taking the mayor’s special key in your hot little hands, you weave some magic.

  • The tall grass becomes taller and thicker. Maybe even thornier
  • The paths get farther apart. You can’t just sprint from one to another now; the physical effort would be substantial
  • In a flash of insight, you design doors that swing easily from the less desirable path onto the more desirable one. But can only be reversed for $100.

Now, you just need to make a choice. You’ve made it easy to stay on—or get to—the path you desire. Leaving it is far more work.

Thanks for playing along with this little thought experiment! It describes environmental design and sets us up nicely to discuss focus. It also brings us back to reality—and what we actually have the power to change.

Last week, I hinted at the idea of attentional cadence. This is the idea that different types of tasks have different requirements for attention. It’s helpful to think about how often you can task-switch without negatively impacting results. Here are some basic frameworks:

30-second tasks
Checking the time; scanning your notifications for emergencies (but not finding one); micro-workouts (hooray!)

3-minute tasks
Short-ish emails; quick pulse-checks with colleagues; calendar shuffles; mini-workouts

30-minute task
Immersing yourself in a single, challenging problem; crafting a clear piece of communication; short-ish meetings; walks and bike rides and all kinds of movement options

88-minute task
If my calculations are correct, when you need 88 or more minutes of deep focus, you’re gonna accomplish some serious shit

You can see how interruptions at, say, 15-minute intervals are just fine for some types of tasks, but not others.

When it comes to your own work, what attentional cadence does your environment allow for? How do you choose your tasks? And how do you change your surroundings!?

The Challenge

One of the challenges in working (or working out) effectively is to match the attentional cadence of your task with your environment. So, if you are trying to get to the promised land of deep work but you keep getting interrupted every three minutes, you will feel…  Less than focused. In fact, you will probably feel frustrated.

Here are a few variables to consider:

  • Other humans (including the tiny variety)
  • Notifications (is your phone face-up next to you? Or off and in a drawer somewhere)
  • Ambience (the ambient temperature, sound levels, brightness, etc. of your space)
  • Prompts (meaningful reminders to do the things you already want to do)
  • Boundaries (do you have some version of a Do Not Disturb sign?)
  • Your motivation to do the task at hand
  • ​Your ability to do the task at hand

Question of the Week
What environmental factors do you have control over?  Magic key or no, what do you have the power to change?  More to the point, what will you change.

Let me know what you do. And please feel free to reach out if you’re feeling stuck. If I can find ways to boost focus, anyone can.

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