Reading anything more complicated than a Popeye cartoon — for example, this article — requires at least some degree of concentration. As you read, you have to shut out the sights and sounds around you, and halt any unrelated thoughts. If you don't, then you might reach the end of a paragraph only to realize that you have no recollection or understanding of what you just read.
Psychologists use the phrase directed attention instead of concentration. To direct one's attention requires effort. And eventually we get tired.
Most brainwork jobs require prolonged periods of directed attention — reading and writing, of course, but also listening, problem solving, debating, choosing, deciding, remembering, and more.
When we design our workspaces, or when we choose an approach to dealing with the incoming task stream that plagues our workdays, we make choices. One choice is to acknowledge that human beings have inherent limits to their performance, and then do our best to meet the needs of the job within those limits. The alternative is to deny the existence of limits to performance, to accept the burdens of the job, and to believe that we ought to be able to do whatever is required. Most people choose the latter. They deny that there are limits. That path, experience indicates, leads to unhappiness, frustration, failure, and burnout.
So let's look at one of those limits — the one psychologists call directed attention fatigue (DAF). It is the mental exhaustion that results from overuse of the mechanisms by which our brains suppress stimuli other than those that are task-related. We rely on these mechanisms to maintain directed attention — to focus on the task.
The symptoms of DAF include:
- Impaired judgment
- A "short fuse:" irritability
- Misperception or failure to notice (or care about) social cues
- Restlessness, confusion, forgetfulness
- Acting out-of-character
- Impulsiveness, recklessness, impaired judgment
- Inability to plan or make appropriate decisions
- Decreased awareness of effective thinking tactics and strategies
- Degraded problem solving skills
Because so much brainwork is carried out in teams or groups, these symptoms of DAF clearly jeopardize our effectiveness. Learn to recognize these symptoms in yourself. When you suspect DAF, try these interventions:
- Rest. Take short breaks.
- Limit the number of active tasks.
- Minimize distractions. Turn off automatic alerts and blank the screens you aren't using.
If you lead teams, learn to recognize the symptoms of DAF in others. To prevent DAF, take steps:
- Assign Because so much brainwork is
carried out in teams or groups,
symptoms of DAF clearly
jeopardize our effectivenesstasks to people who want to do them
- Monitor team members' working hours, and keep them reasonable. The edge of unreasonable is about 45 hours per week.
- Do what you can to make working environments quiet. Cubicles are a really bad idea, and you might have to live with them. If you do, add DAF to your risk plan.
- Don't let conflicts fester.
Have you noticed the symptoms of DAF in yourself or others at work? Track them. Notice trends. And pass this article around. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- An Emergency Toolkit
- You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target
of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond,
but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
- What Do You Need?
- When working issues jointly with others, especially with one other, we sometimes hear, "What do
you need to make this work?" Your answers can doom your effort — or make it a smashing success.
- The Power of Situational Momentum
- For many of us, the typical workday presents a series of opportunities to take action. We often approach
these situations by choosing among the expected choices. But usually there are choices that exploit
situational momentum, and they can be powerful choices indeed.
- The Perils of Limited Agreement
- When a group member agrees to a proposal, even with conditions, the group can move forward. Such agreement
is constructive, but there are risks. What are those risks and what can we do about them?
- Regaining Respect from Others
- When you feel that a colleague has lost professional respect for you — or never really had respect
for you — what can you do about it? Check your conclusions, check whether it's about you, and
ask for a dialog.
See also Conflict Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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