Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Attention span

Steven Dubner is falling over himself with enthusiasm for this paradigm of work styles and so am I. It divides the world into "makers" and "managers", the former who tend to work on things in large blocks of time without interruption, and the latter who divide their days into hour-long distinct tasks.

This has been such an important theme in my life I had to comment and elaborate. I have always thought of it just in terms of attention span (most of the rest of the world seems ADHD to me...) but maybe this manager/maker split is more general. Or maybe attentions span just predicts which type of worker you are better suited to be.

In school I never really work in between classes during the day. I fill up the gaps with minor tasks and errands and wasting time because a free hour isn't enough to really delve into something. I always wished we could take one class at a time for 4 or 5 weeks each so we didn't have to switch focus every day. Part of the reason I skip classes so often is because a class isn't just a one hour commitment, it splits up the day and delays by five hours getting home to a blank solitary 12 hour stretch of concentration. The 8 months I worked on Wall Street were completely miserable in large part because I was never able to adapt to the rigid, fractured, people-filled distracting work environment. I'm horrible at multitasking. Even this summer, working on as many as seven different projects, I only do one at a time in week long blocks.

I'm often torn between the merits of the two working styles. Structured blocks assigned to different tasks, on the one hand, forces you to be "on task" more often. When you only have an hour for something, you can't spend an hour looking up papers, reading abstracts, fiddling with data, and generally reabsorbing yourself in the thought process of the project. On the other hand, that hour is a profitable investment in the next eight when you can make the major breakthroughs.

But, despite the tradeoffs, it's pretty clear that the 'real world' is much more sympathetic to the manager style of work. Meetings are scheduled in blocked-up calendars. Lunch breaks and coffee breaks and commuting from place to place break up your schedule and interrupt your concentration, school and activity schedules fill up all the gaps. When does someone in an office job ever get a six hour chunk of time to really focus on something? It just doesn't happen, unless you're self-employed or in academia and intentionally create that for yourself.

So please, let's make a collective effort to reduce distractions and respect the time requirements for intense work. Only have a real meeting when you really need to collaboratively discuss something in real time. Send quick emails the rest of the time. Don't require physical presence at minor engagements. Don't ask me to "grab lunch" or "get some coffee". Move all of the errands and meetings and bureaucratic nonsense to Friday afternoon.