On the Fragmentation of Attention

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I have often thought that when people complain of being short of time, it is more often that they are short of brain space. If you do an audit of every minute in your day, there are often plenty of minutes that are ‘unproductive’ if regarded from the outside. But, from the inside, you can’t make use of those minutes for anything very much because it just takes too much energy to upload something productive into your head for a brief time, and then - just when you’ve got going - dump it out again for something else.

This is of course that standard wisdom about why multitasking is inefficient - there are frictional costs of attention involved in every switch, so switch often enough and you get nothing done. Multitasking still has its place, I’d say, but only with routine tasks that you have at the tip of your brain anyway. I quite like the definition that multitasking is a technique for avoiding several dull tasks by doing them all at once.

It is also about background processing - something I have mulled upon before in the contexts of creative work and other things that are personally challenging.

My recent thoughts about it emerged from a very busy couple of months in which I did a lot of travelling, met a lot of new people, and had a lot of new experiences. All of which were fabulous and I feel very lucky to have a life like this. But what I noticed as these weeks rolled through was a decreasing ability to get anything much done on creative work between the trips.

It wasn’t merely physical tiredness (although a couple of the trips did involve shortage of sleep, mostly that wasn’t an issue), it was an increasing sense of over-stimulation. I just didn’t get quite enough time to process each experience before a new one arrived, until it got to the point that, although on paper I had identified clear days to get on with various writing and arranging projects, there were never enough of them in a row to get headspace to get started.

I’m reflecting on this to see if I could have seen this coming, and if I had would I have done anything differently. One factor I hadn’t anticipated was how eagerly my brain was going to leap at the opportunity to engage with the German language on my trip to BinG! Harmony College. I had thought, from my various abortive efforts to study it in my youth, that it was something I didn’t really get, but hearing it spoken around me suddenly lit up all the bits of my brain that had previously struggled with it into a state of enthusiasm. That was really fun - and I could enjoy following it up actually to acquire some useful competence in the language.

(Thinking about it, I had a similar experience age 15 on a visit to France - so I’m not surprised it happens, I just hadn’t expected that it would on this occasion.)

But, oh my, it was greedy of headspace. I had been thinking of the event in terms of my role there - in many ways routine, if busy - and had just failed to anticipate how much processing it was going to take in the following week.

Another factor was a classic planning error. I filled my diary in advance to a point that was just about manageable, but left insufficient space for extra stuff to land in my lap at short notice. And of course there was no way I *wasn’t* going to go down to London to be filmed as an expert on barbershop for a bit on the One Show, that was far too much fun to turn down. But that had been a day I was planning to use to catch up with myself.

It’s not the first time in my life I’ve been busy, for sure. And the act of carving out brain space for ongoing projects is something I’m used to doing. But this autumn’s experience has brought home to me how much continuity of space and of social contact helps you do that. If I had been travelling to the same place to work with the same people each time, then I’d have been better able automate the handling of sensory impressions. (The one repeat visit had continuity of people and repertoire, but was unhelpfully in a different rehearsal venue!)

Actually, the key thing I need to note for future reference is that, once I get behind on processing experiences, I remain clogged up until I get the space to decompress thoroughly. So, any time I find a bonkers diary period looming again, I shouldn’t try to schedule creative work in the odd days between trips, as that is effectively double counting the use of my brain. I can either integrate new experiences, or work on creative projects, not both at the same time. And I can’t do much with the latter until I have cleared enough of the former out of my head to free up some cognitive capacity.

This feels like something of a self-indulgent post: here, look at the inside of my head! But I’m hardly the only person to have to juggle cognitive resources, so I’ll just plough on in my usual principle of sharing stuff I find interesting to think about in case other people like to think about it too.

You know, early in 2015 I looked at my diary and thought it looked a bit bare. I did wonder briefly if I should worry about it at the time. From here, my past self looks completely ungrateful. Ebb and flow in activity rates is an inherent part of freelance life: in future I resolve to make more effort to celebrate the ebbs.

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