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.
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Political Framing: Communications
- In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual
by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for
reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some communications tactics framers use.
- Handling Heat: I
- Heated exchanges in meetings are expensive to both the organizational mission and to the careers of
the meeting's participants. Preventing them — or dealing with them when they happen — is
everyone's job. But what can you do when they persist?
- First Aid for Wounded Conversations
- Groups that meet regularly sometimes develop patterns of tense conversations that become obstacles to
forward progress. Here are some ideas for releasing the tension.
- Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what
and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
- 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?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.