Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 7;   February 15, 2017: Directed Attention Fatigue

Directed Attention Fatigue

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Humans have a limited capacity to concentrate attention on thought-intensive tasks. After a time, we must rest and renew. Most brainwork jobs aren't designed with this in mind.
A sunlit glen

A sunlit glen. Visiting peaceful, natural settings can help to restore one's capacity for directed attention. Even if you can't visit one physically, images of these settings can also be effective. A wall calendar with beautiful images of natural vistas can be very helpful.

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 effectiveness
    tasks 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Heart with Mind  Next Issue

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