The two ways of attention

It seems to me that for us, digital worker types, there are two different ways to invest our attention while working: (1) Keeping on top of things (2) Creating and solving.

Both modes are needed, and both modes drain our limited daily attention budget. How much attention we will spend in each mode will depend on our specific role, job and personality. If we have developed poor attention management habits, then we may get stuck in one mode way longer than necessary.

For me, these two modes look like this:

MODE A

In this mode I am collecting and reacting to inputs. I process my various inboxes, news feeds, social media feeds. This includes time and energy I spend on quick (shallow) responses to these inputs. Things like a confirmation email, forwarding an attachment, proposing a new meeting time. I feel like a Jedi knight deflecting laser shots, concentrated on survival.

MODE B

This is my ‘maker time’ or creative time. Deep work. When I use a whiteboard or pencil and paper to unpack my ideas and untangle my thoughts. Design. Coding. Testing. Writing. This includes time and energy I spend on deep (well thought-out and considered) responses to the inputs above.

Although in this mode I usually work alone, this mode is also possible when brainstorming with another person. (I briefly mentioned this type of brainstorming in another post)  

HOW DOES IT LOOK

When spending my attention in MODE A I can feel deceptively ‘productive’. This is because it is easy to confuse movement with action and busyness with results.

The dark side of MODE A is that its superficial productivity is alluring, and I can easily switch into this mode when bored, anxious or trying to avoid some other unpleasant task.

On the other hand, when spending attention in MODE B I can feel lazy and unproductive. I doubt myself: ‘Am I just wasting time here?’ If I am wrestling with a deep, complicated issue, I need to be careful not to use MODE A as an excuse to quit the mental exertion too early.

The dark side of MODE B is that if I stay there for too long, I become disconnected from the real world. The inputs pile up, creating background psychic stress and real emergencies, especially if a key input is left unattended for too long.

I PICK MY MODE

My personal discovery is that to manage my attention budget it helps when I call out specifically what is my working mode. E.g. “6AM to 10AM tomorrow will be dedicated to maker time”. I guess this is like the now popular ‘time-blocking’ strategies, I just emphasize the type of work before the task itself.

If I am unclear about what mode I should be planning for, I pause and spend deliberate time in the ‘neutral zone’(*) deciding between these two modes.

IN THE NEUTRAL ZONE

When I land in this zone:

I have pen and paper handy; many times I do not use them, but the physicality of spinning or tapping the pen on the paper helps me. I guess the advice here is to find a physical trigger/association that you can use consistently without embarrassing yourself.

I take a deep breath, calm my mind and spend a couple of minutes listening -empty mind- to what may come up spontaneously. The underlying non-verbalized intention while I ‘listen’ could be expressed by the questions: What did I forget? Is there an unpleasant fact or reality I am conveniently ignoring by being busy? What is putting me in an off mood right now?


This was harder to put into words than I expected. I hope that exposing my quirky personal approaches will help or inspire some of you to improve and create your own weird habits and strategies to make your workday more effective and satisfying.


(*) An area of space between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Star Empire that measures approximately one light year and serves as a “buffer” zone.

And yes, you can mix Star Trek and Star Wars metaphors in the same article without crashing your browser.