Eluding Attention Hijacks

by ABranco7 min read17th Apr 201023 comments


Personal Blog

Do my taxes? Oh, no! It’s not going to be that easy. It’s going to be different this year, I’m sure. I saw the forms—they look different. There are probably new rules I’m going to have to figure out. I might need to read all that damn material. Long form, short form, medium form? File together, file separate? We’ll probably want to claim deductions, but if we do we’ll have to back them up, and that means we’ll need all the receipts. Oh, my God—I don’t know if we really have all the receipts we’d need, and what if we didn’t have all the receipts and claimed the deductions anyway and got audited? Audited? Oh, no—the IRS—JAIL!!

And so a lot of people put themselves in jail, just glancing at their 1040 tax forms. Because they are so smart, sensitive, and creative.

—David Allen, Getting Things Done



Very recently, Roko wrote about ugh fields, “an unconscious flinch we have from even thinking about a serious personal problem. The ugh field forms a self-shadowing blind spot covering an area desperately in need of optimization, imposing huge costs.” Suggested antidotes included PJ Eby’s technique to engage with the ugh field, locate its center, and access information—thereupon dissolving the negative emotions.

I want to explore here something else that prevents us from doing what we want. Consider these situations:

Situation 1
You attack a problem that is at least slightly complex (distasteful or not), but are unable to systematically tackle it step by step because your mind keeps diverging wildly within the problem. Your brain starts running simulations and gets stuck. To make things worse, you are biased towards thinking of the worst possible scenarios. Having visualized 30 steps ahead, you panic and do nothing. David Allen's quote in the introduction of this post illustrates that.

Situation 2
You attack a problem of any complexity—anything you need to get done—and your mind keeps diverging to different directions outside the problem. Examples:

a. You decide you need to quickly send an important email before an appointment. You log in. Thirty minutes later, you find yourself watching some motivational Powerpoint presentation your uncle sent you. You stare at the inbox and can't remember what you were doing there in the first place. You log out without sending the email, and leave late to your appointment.*

b. You're working on your computer and some kid playing outside the window brings you vague memories of your childhood, vacations, your father teaching you how to fish, tilapias, earthworms, digging the earth, dirty hands, antibacterial soaps, swine flu, airport announcements, seatbelts, sexual fantasies with that redheaded flight attendant from that flight to Barcelona, and ... "wait, wait, wait! I am losing focus, I need to get this done." Ten minutes had passed (or was it more?).

Repeat this phenomenon many times a day and you won't have gone too far.

What happened?

While I am aware that situations 1 and 2 are a bit different in nature (anxiety because of “seeing too much into the problem” vs. distraction to other problems), it seems to me that both bear something very fundamental in common. In all those situations, you became less efficient to get things done because your sensitivity permitted your attention to be deviated to easily. You suffered what I shall call an attention hijack.


Why does this happen? Let’s see.

First, we have stimuli coming from your senses: what you see, hear, smell and feel trigger thoughts. The capture of external stimuli just happens: it’s automatic. To (try to) ignore it, we need to spend some energy.

Second, we must remember that our brain does not have a Central Processing Unit that we can call “me being in total control”. What we have are separate processing units running in parallel. That means that a part of you is trying to accomplish a task, and part of you is getting distracted into the future or your co-workers chat.

An aspect of this phenomenon is that some people are much more distracted than others. And it seems that it is specifically the most smart, sensitive, and creative people who suffer from it most often.

Quoting again from David Allen:

Often it’s the insensitive oafs who just take something and start plodding forward, unaware of all the things that could go wrong. Everyone else tends to get hung about all kinds of things.

It also happens that those very sensitive ones tend also to be the ones with the most disorganized lives.


Why are attention hijacks bad, and why do we want to elude them?

First, because you waste time: directly, because the diverting thoughts prevent you to get things done; and indirectly, because complex problems need to be loaded in your memory, and demands your concentration to “grasp” the big picture, which gets disrupted by an attention hijack.

Another negative impact is the emergence of bad feelings, such as the sensation of being overwhelmed by too many tasks and ideas, or the sensation of unaccomplishment in general. Those feelings could escalate and turn into ugh fields.

By protecting yourself, you could be able to do things more efficiently. You’d be able to (a) go deeper in more complex problems; (b) have more free time, and/or be able to do more; (c) better enjoy the execution of tasks by achieving flow.

Some strategies to circumvent attention hijacks

It might sound very tempting to prove our incredible powers and face the disturbances directly. It is actually an entertaining exercise in several situations. Josh Waitzkin, for example, had to learn to leverage disturbances for his own benefit, or he wouldn’t have been an international-level chessmaster and pushing-hands champion. It is possible, it is doable.

You might want to train yourself, like Josh, but that is only an option. It takes time and energy, anyway, and he had to do that because he had no alternative: all kinds of disturbances would appear in championships, he had to face them. As a general rule, however, it seems wise to acknowledge that your brain has its bugs, and therefore insert this information in your model of the world.

To protect yourself from an attention hijack, you need to seal yourself from whatever triggers the deviation of your attention in directions you don't want. You want to think and be creative only about whatever your next step is. You must forget the rest of the world for a while.

Operationally, you're in a certain way trying to deceive yourself. That is not irrational: strategically, you know exactly what you are doing.

As Taleb wrote in Fooled by Randomness:

In book 12 of the Odyssey, the hero encounters the sirens (...). He fills the ears of all his men with wax, to the point of total deafness, and has himself tied to the mast. The sailors are under strict instructions not to release him. As they approach the sirens' island, the sea is calm and over the water comes the sound of a music so ravishing that Odysseus struggles to get loose, expending an inordinate amount of energy to unrestrain himself. His men tie him even further, until they are safely past the poisoned sounds.

The first lesson I took from the story is not to even attempt to be Odysseus. He is a mythological character and I am not. He can be tied to the mast; I can merely reach the rank of a sailor who needs to have his ears filled with wax.
Wax in my ears. The epiphany I had in my career in randomness came when I understood that I was not intelligent enough, nor strong enough, to even try to fight my emotions. Besides, I believe that I need my emotions to formulate my ideas and get the energy to execute them. (...)

This beautiful illustration of Odysseus' adventure will look familiar to many readers of this blog.

Disclaimer: The following list of suggestions of how to block attention hijacks are a consequence of my own personal experience. I tried to make it as systematic as possible, but please bear in mind that the categories are not intended to be completely MECE, nor the examples are to be evaluated as the only possibilities. Some sources might be missing or unreliable—but if it is included here is because I had a personal positive experience with the technique, nevertheless.

I am aware that you might find overlap with some techniques previously posted in Less Wrong, as the avoidance of attention hijacks is a focusing method—which is normally encompassed by the definition of akrasia.

I would love to hear your own tricks, too.


First step: block the environment

Block noise: I have been delighted to notice how much my concentration is improved just by using earplugs. Find your type. I like the ones in orange foam, but the moldable soft silicone is unbeatable. They are both cheap.

Block sight: I realized that this is much less obvious to most people. Our mind is all the time absorbing data that comes from our peripheral vision and processing it. This requires energy. With time, our baseline became to work “with some noise, with some clutter, with some decoration, with some people walking around”. For minds used to see patterns and be creative, any element not directly involved with the task you want to get done is a potential attention hijacker. You don’t want to be sniped, do you?

Try this: declutter your environment, make it simple. (If I could have my background in a deep white, as in the Matrix, I would.) Remove both uncomfortable and attracting visual cues. Try to be somewhere where there are no movements around, no people passing. Remember that horses wear blinders for a reason. You might be more similar to horses than you thought.

Block the entrance of new issues:
a. Block interruptions from people: tell people you don’t like being interrupted when [insert your personal criteria here]. If you explain, most people will understand. Some won’t—deal with that, too. Be able to say no, and then get to them later.

b. Do not open potential Pandora’s boxes while working on a task: do one thing at a time and avoid multitasking. Do not start doing something else, finish whatever you are doing first. And a widely ignored tip is to not provoke deliberation before you can take action—Tim Ferriss gives a good example:

Don’t scan the inbox on Friday evening or over the weekend if you might encounter work problems that can’t be addressed until Monday. Is your weekend really “free” if you find a crisis in the inbox Saturday morning that you can’t address until Monday morning? Even if the inbox scan lasts 30 seconds, the preoccupation and forward projection for the subsequent 48 hours effectively deletes that experience from your life. You had time but you didn’t have attention, so the time had no practical value.

c. Practice relinquishing your need for control: the moment you realize you are paying attention to only one thing, a part of you might yell inside: “Hey, you are losing control of the big picture? What if someone sent you an important email? What if the conversation your co-workers are having is relevant? What if today’s newspaper have something to tell me?” So, part of your curiosity might be actually a discomfort with related to the feeling of losing control. How exactly to deal with that is not part of the scope of this post, though.

Second step: block your own thoughts

Make it harder for the thought to show up in the first place: blocking “noise” tends to be very helpful, but might not be sufficient, or even necessary if you can click into a flow state easily. Flow makes you naturally more concentrated and immune to the environment. There are many things you can do to achieve flow. I highlight two: (a) make it challenging and (b) batch tasks.

One cool way to make the task more challenging, especially if it’s a physical one, is by executing it fast and timeboxing it, as if you were in a competition. Doing something faster demands more concentration, which blocks hijacking. And, of course, you’ll do it faster. Just try it. Can you imagine an Olympic swimmer thinking of anything else than perfecting his movements while he’s competing?

Batching tasks is attractive because you reduce the number of times you need to load a problem. It’s easier to get distracted when you keep switching between activities that are different in nature.

If thoughts still show up that are unrelated to your next action:
Does it seem relevant? If not, try to ignore it. Meditation helps here. Self-awareness. Luminosity.

If relevant, than you have to write it down and move on. It might be something confusing like the “Do my taxes? Oh, no!” thing-y, in which case you need to find a systematic approach to tackle it step by step, writing down your thoughts and ideas. It might also be a task or a concern unrelated to the problem—same thing: write it down, check it later. There aren’t many choices here: either one has a reliable GTD-like system to collect ideas and thoughts; or one needs to be okay with letting go of one’s important thoughts.

Anything important that I might have missed? Please, comment.

* This feeling of disorientation experienced when you wake up in your email after an attention hijack has been named Inbox Alzheimer.


23 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:49 PM
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There's a very simple trick (originally posted by danarm) for dealing with the most harmful consequence of attention hijacks, namely, the difficulty to return to where your mind was before the hijack occurred:

Writing each step you do on paper, while doing it: +8. This helps me when I can't concentrate, when I'm distracted. I simply write what I'm doing (the current step, or the next step), on paper. If for a step (which I have already written on paper), I find that I must first do a sub-step, then I write the sub-step. The result is a log of what I've done and what I'm doing. The great advantage of this is that if I get distracted, I can return to just where I left off, by just reading the last line or the last few lines I written on paper.

There's a very simple trick (originally posted by danarm) for dealing with the most harmful consequence of attention hijacks, namely, the difficulty to return to where your mind was before the hijack occurred:

'Most harmful consequence' is highly situational here and evidently varies a lot from person to person. When I am returning to the task I have no particular need for a piece of paper to redirect me. The task is right there on the call stack, I'm just not doing it. Perhaps my hijackers are of a different kind.

I have a limited stack depth.

My stack depth varies depending what I am doing. This is to be expected given that with expertise comes the ability to operate on long term memory more or less as working. My 'programming' stack on a project that I have been working on is more or less unlimited.

One specific kind of distraction I found interesting is the 'valuable distraction', where you get an interesting idea that is unrelated to your current task and which you in fact do not want to elude. My solution for preventing the new idea from getting me off-track is to use a low-bandwidth channel to communicate with my future self, which is a long way of saying sending myself a one-line email just supple enough to restore the memory context.

...which is pretty much equivalent to the writing down tip that I wrote -- only that maybe for you emails are units easier to process.

Problem is that it takes some time to send an email. Really. I mean, not if you have three-four ideas a day, but if you have (like me) some dozens, the extra seconds of writing an email, multiplied by many emails, might become a barrier. So I prefer text files, and then I process them later.

+1, agreed. I think the difference is due to tool usage. Sending subject-only email to myself from iphone, which is almost always with me, is about 15 seconds. If you write you might be tempted to elaborate. Either way, this is what you said and I missed on a quick read.

And for those who find earplugs uncomfortable after a while, there are white-noise machines like this.

That's definitely interesting. I am curious: have you tried them?, do they actually work?

Oh, if you want to hear what they sound like, try simplynoise.com on a low setting. I prefer the brown/red setting, which is quite similar to the noise the machines make (at least on the setting I use).

I own two of them, one for the bedroom, and one for the office or living room. I sleep much better with the noise machine on, and I find it easier to sustain high concentration for extended periods during the day with the noise machine on. The many little sounds that I hear living in a city and that I often find distracting when I'm trying to focus on something difficult bother me much less when the noise machine is going.

Why downvote this? This is just the sort of thing that works for me! Change the environment. What you can't hear can't interrupt you.

I agree. It was quick, harmless, and relevant.

I have to say that I was recommended those ones as being the best. They are indeed the sexiest earplugs ever. Stylish.

Unfortunately, at least for me, they were inferior in blocking noise compared to the cheap ones in orange foam. Silicone still wins.

I like this post a lot.

Nitpicks unrelated to the content:

You attack a problem of any complexity—anything you need to get done—, and your mind [...]

The second em dash shouldn't have a comma after it.

You login. [...] You logout without sending the email

"Login" and "logout" are nouns. The verbs are written spaced: "log in" and "log out". (To see this for yourself, try an inflected form: "I logged in", not *"I loginned".)

The MECE link should go here not here.

You are right, thank you. Corrected.

[-][anonymous]11y 2

Ironically, I can't stop wondering how many people are procrastinating by reading this post.

True. =)

On the other hand, I've found that time invested in being more productive pays itself handsomely in time saved.

[-][anonymous]11y 1

The Odysseus example is crucial. When I started examining how to fix my problem, that's where I started. Those who think they need wax should take a look at illusion of control bias. These days, if I have a task that is in a category of tasks that I've failed to do on at least three different occasions, I think its fair to assess that I need some serious wax.

Good post. I'm someone who has been working with serious attention hijacking problems that fit descriptions 1 and 2 well. Most of the stuff I've figured out is in your post, and you've added a couple things for me to consider or research.

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