Quotation-as-title from Marcus Aurelius. Image from top-linked post.
I confess to not yet having read Elizabeth Emens’ book The Art of Life Admin but it’s definitely on my list to read this year. A recent BBC Worklife article cites the book and the concept of ‘attention residue’. This is defined as multiple tasks and obligations which split our attention and reduce our overall performance.
“If you have attention residue, you are basically operating with part of your cognitive resources being busy, and that can have a wide range of impacts – you might not be as efficient in your work, you might not be as good a listener, you may get overwhelmed more easily, you might make errors, or struggle with decisions and your ability to process information.”Sophie Leroy (associate professor of management at the University of Washington)
Attention residue makes us procrastinate at work, and affects our sleep. And sleep, as I explained in my (unfinished) audiobook #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity (v2) is one of the three pillars of productivity.
The other two, if you’re wondering, are exercise and nutrition. (While I know very talented people who don’t exercise nor look after their bodies, I don’t know any very productive people who aren’t careful about keeping active and what they put into their bodies.)
Back to attention residue, and as the author of the BBC article points out, getting rid of life admin and the associated attention residue means you can enjoy life a little more, guilt-free:
In my case, the GYLIO experiment proved that self-care is less about carving out time to relax amid chaos, and more about removing to-dos from our crowded lives. With some life admin cleared away, I had a bubble bath and enjoyed the smug delight of a life – momentarily – in order.Madeleine Dore
For me, sleep is extremely important As I learned when our children were very small, I really can’t function properly if I have less than seven hours’ sleep for two nights in a row.
As a result, I tend to go to bed early, usually before my wife, and definitely having ensured that I’ve avoided screens after 21:00. I’m definitely in bed by 22:00 and then read until about 22:30.
That means, as has been happening recently, if I am disturbed around 05:30, I can get up and carve out some quiet time to myself before the family awakens. Usually, though, I sleep until around 06:30 which means that, according to my smartband, I’m well-rested.
While we’re on the subject of sleep and sleepiness, if you drink coffee first thing in the morning, you might want to rethink that approach:
I stopped drinking coffee about a year and a half ago, and instead drink around three cups of tea over the course of the day. Otherwise, I’ve found, it’s very easy to use caffeine as an accelerator pedal and alcohol as a brakepedal.
Without productive routines it’s easy to become overwhelmed. In an article I shared in last Friday’s link roundup about communicating better at work, Michael Natkin, suggests that feeling overwhelmed is a common situation:
We’ve all been there. You’ve got so much on your plate that you don’t know where to start. Things that look like they will take fifteen minutes balloon into five-day poop-storms. Every item you cross off your list seems to spawn three more. The check engine light just went on in your car. And now your boss is chasing you down for an unexpected fire drill.Michael Natkin
The temptation, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, is to try and hide, to let no-one know that you’re not coping. But that’s a really dangerous approach, and the exact opposite of what you should do.
Instead, Natkin suggests an approach of ‘over-communicating’ which, he says, engages empathy and invites trust:
- Make a (prioritised) list
- Write an email to your line manager (and anyone else you should inform) giving realistic estimates of when your projects will be complete.
- Agree on a plan, and keep everyone updated
You should ask for feedback on your proposed course of action, he says, rather than giving it as a fait accompli.
I think this is a great strategy. What we all need to realise is that, usually, we were chosen for the position we’re in, and therefore we should use that to fuel our confidence and self-esteem. Communicating a plan is always better than hiding.
Finally, a word about admin. Some people absolutely love spreadsheets, get a little thrill when they reconcile transactions, and don’t mind filling in forms. If, like me, that sounds like the exact opposite of the things I enjoy doing, then you need some admin support.
You can pay for it, you can ask your employer to provide it, or you can call in favours. Either way, without it, you’re going to eventually drown in life admin at home and work admin at the office.
My only bit of advice would be to really set your stall out for this. Don’t whine or complain about your workload; instead, explain the situation and the impact of admin on your productivity. Put it in financial terms, if necessary.
What are your tips around “attention residue” and what to do when feeling overwhelmed?
This week’s roundup is going out a day later than usual, as yesterday was the Global Climate Strike and Thought Shrapnel was striking too!
Here’s what I’ve been paying attention to this week:
- How does a computer ‘see’ gender? (Pew Research Center) — “Machine learning tools can bring substantial efficiency gains to analyzing large quantities of data, which is why we used this type of system to examine thousands of image search results in our own studies. But unlike traditional computer programs – which follow a highly prescribed set of steps to reach their conclusions – these systems make their decisions in ways that are largely hidden from public view, and highly dependent on the data used to train them. As such, they can be prone to systematic biases and can fail in ways that are difficult to understand and hard to predict in advance.”
- The Communication We Share with Apes (Nautilus) — “Many primate species use gestures to communicate with others in their groups. Wild chimpanzees have been seen to use at least 66 different hand signals and movements to communicate with each other. Lifting a foot toward another chimp means “climb on me,” while stroking their mouth can mean “give me the object.” In the past, researchers have also successfully taught apes more than 100 words in sign language.”
- Why degrowth is the only responsible way forward (openDemocracy) — “If we free our imagination from the liberal idea that well-being is best measured by the amount of stuff that we consume, we may discover that a good life could also be materially light. This is the idea of voluntary sufficiency. If we manage to decide collectively and democratically what is necessary and enough for a good life, then we could have plenty.”
- 3 times when procrastination can be a good thing (Fast Company) — “It took Leonardo da Vinci years to finish painting the Mona Lisa. You could say the masterpiece was created by a master procrastinator. Sure, da Vinci wasn’t under a tight deadline, but his lengthy process demonstrates the idea that we need to work through a lot of bad ideas before we get down to the good ones.”
- Why can’t we agree on what’s true any more? (The Guardian) — “What if, instead, we accepted the claim that all reports about the world are simply framings of one kind or another, which cannot but involve political and moral ideas about what counts as important? After all, reality becomes incoherent and overwhelming unless it is simplified and narrated in some way or other.
- A good teacher voice strikes fear into grown men (TES) — “A good teacher voice can cut glass if used with care. It can silence a class of children; it can strike fear into the hearts of grown men. A quiet, carefully placed “Excuse me”, with just the slightest emphasis on the “-se”, is more effective at stopping an argument between adults or children than any amount of reason.”
- Freeing software (John Ohno) — “The only way to set software free is to unshackle it from the needs of capital. And, capital has become so dependent upon software that an independent ecosystem of anti-capitalist software, sufficiently popular, can starve it of access to the speed and violence it needs to consume ever-doubling quantities of to survive.”
- Young People Are Going to Save Us All From Office Life (The New York Times) — “Today’s young workers have been called lazy and entitled. Could they, instead, be among the first to understand the proper role of work in life — and end up remaking work for everyone else?”
- Global climate strikes: Don’t say you’re sorry. We need people who can take action to TAKE ACTUAL ACTION (The Guardian) — “Brenda the civil disobedience penguin gives some handy dos and don’ts for your civil disobedience”
In references for jobs, former employers are required to be positive. Therefore, a reference that focuses on how polite and punctual someone is could actually be a damning indictment of their ability. Such ‘conversational implicature’ is the focus of this article:
When we convey a message indirectly like this, linguists say that we implicate the meaning, and they refer to the meaning implicated as an implicature. These terms were coined by the British philosopher Paul Grice (1913-88), who proposed an influential account of implicature in his classic paper ‘Logic and Conversation’ (1975), reprinted in his book Studies in the Way of Words (1989). Grice distinguished several forms of implicature, the most important being conversational implicature. A conversational implicature, Grice held, depends, not on the meaning of the words employed (their semantics), but on the way that the words are used and interpreted (their pragmatics).
From my point of view, this is similar to the difference between productive and unproductive ambiguity.
The distinction between what is said and what is conversationally implicated isn’t just a technical philosophical one. It highlights the extent to which human communication is pragmatic and non-literal. We routinely rely on conversational implicature to supplement and enrich our utterances, thus saving time and providing a discreet way of conveying sensitive information. But this convenience also creates ethical and legal problems. Are we responsible for what we implicate as well as for what we actually say?
For example, and as the article notes, “shall we go upstairs?” can mean a sexual invitation, which may or may not later imply consent. It’s a tricky area.
I’ve noted that the more technically-minded a person, the less they use conversational implicature. In addition, and I’m not sure if this is true or just my own experience, I’ve found that Americans tend to be more literal in their communication than Europeans.
To avoid disputes and confusion, perhaps we should use implicature less and communicate more explicitly? But is that recommendation feasible, given the extent to which human communication relies on pragmatics?
To use conversational implicature is human. It can be annoying. It can turn political. But it’s an extremely useful tool, and certainly lubricates us all rubbing along together.