When you open your laptop in the morning to start your day, chances are you might feel fresh and ready to tackle your work. But by mid to late afternoon, after dealing nonstop with an onslaught of emails, Slack messages, countless Zoom meetings, and your overdue monthly report, you feel exhausted and find yourself turning to social media. After dealing with a flood of information all day, you can only handle something mindless. Exhausted and depleted as you unwind for the evening, you begin to feel a nagging sense of regret for not achieving all your goals for the day. Sound and feel familiar?
Our computing devices can increase our capabilities to be productive, but the human mind remains a bottleneck for how much information we can actually take in and process—our attentional capacity is limited. The reason you feel so drained by mid-afternoon is that you have been likely using your limited resources with abandon, and the demands on them have exceeded what you had available. To stay focused and be productive, we need to reframe how we think about work and our relationship with screens—and perhaps even ourselves without them.
There are so many reasons why our resources get drained when we use our devices. A major, and perhaps surprising, way is due to multitasking—shifting our attention among tasks, websites, and applications—which is commonplace at work where managing information is essential. As a researcher of human-computer interaction, my work has shown that we shift our attention rapidly on screens—on average every 47 seconds. Each time we switch from one task to another (or to email and back), our brains need to recreate an internal representation of the task at hand. It’s like continually shifting gears in our minds. This uses up mental resources, in addition to the resources we expend to actually do the task.
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Sometimes, we do have longer periods of sustained focus. But just as multitasking can drain our resources, so can long periods of focus without taking breaks. Consider being in one Zoom meeting after another where you must pay attention. This tires us out. Consider it like working out: We can’t lift weights continuously all day without having to stop and refresh.
When we are tired our resistance to distractions declines, and it’s not just external distractions, like notifications or targeted ads, that lead our attention astray. In fact, we found that we are just as likely to interrupt ourselves, thinking of something unrelated to the task at hand while trying to focus. Consider how often you check email, news, social media, or shop online without any external instigator.
Sometimes we start our day at a disadvantage without a full tank of resources due to not getting enough quality sleep. If a person needs eight hours of sleep a night but is consistently getting only six hours, then they accumulate sleep debt. As your sleep debt increases, your attention span decreases and you spend more time doing lightweight activities, like scrolling on social media. In other words, your ability to self-regulate declines so you fall into a cycle of draining resources, leading to weaker self-control against distractions, making it more difficult to get focused and back on track.
There are things we can do to keep our resources and focus replenished. It begins by reframing your thinking about work. One major way is to change the notion of scheduling tasks to actually designing your day. The typical practice of scheduling one’s day is to write down a to-do list of tasks and associate a time with each. Or commonly, we schedule our tasks and meetings back-to-back to try to squeeze as much as we can into a day. But what if we approached our days by optimizing our mental resources and well-being instead?
The Japanese have an expression, “yohaku no bi” which refers to “the beauty of empty space.” In Japanese gardens, the design is viewed holistically, and the empty space surrounding rocks takes on importance in the garden aesthetics. In fine art, empty space, also known as negative space, surrounds the figure and helps us interpret the entire piece holistically. Similarly, we can think about designing our day to incorporate empty space into it to help us be more productive in our work.
Designing empty space into your day means intentionally including time to build up and replenish your attentional resources. One of the best ways to utilize such empty space is to take a walk for 20 minutes, as studies show that this can help us destress and promote divergent thinking, generating more and better quality ideas.
If walking outside is not feasible, standing, stretching, and moving around a space can be beneficial. Contemplation and meditation are a wonderful use of such empty space to help replenish. Even simple activities to keep the mind lightly engaged can help. Some people report throwing a ball, knitting, or even doing simple games to be helpful. Simple rote activity can relax us, help us feel positive, and allows ideas to incubate in the back of our minds. That said, it’s important to be strategic with such simple activities: Set a timer if needed or probe yourself to stay intentional in your actions and to become self-aware when you feel replenished. Remember, you are in control of your attention.
Including empty space is critical in our chaotic digital lives to maintain our tank of resources at a high capacity, so we can then perform at our optimum. It can help to view your day using a figure-ground reversal where you bring the time for replenishing to the foreground in your thoughts, so that it’s not neglected. Empty space should receive as much importance as our tasks themselves, as it helps us replenish our attention so that we can accomplish more. This new skillset of becoming aware of our attentional capacity, learning to pull back when we are reaching our limits, and replenishing our tank of resources can, in effect, benefit our relationship to technology—while also preserving our well-being.
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