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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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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