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:
- See No Evil
- When teams share information among themselves, they have their best opportunity to reach peak performance.
And when some information is withheld within an elite group, the team faces unique risks.
- Indicators of Lock-In: I
- In group decision making, lock-in occurs when the group persists in adhering to its chosen course even
though superior alternatives exist. Lock-in can be disastrous for problem-solving organizations. What
are some common indicators of lock-in?
- On Snitching at Work: II
- Reporting violations of laws, policies, regulations, or ethics to authorities at work can expose you
to the risk of retribution. That's why the reporting decision must consider the need for safety.
- Grace Under Fire: II
- When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the
other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able
to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
- On Differences and Disagreements
- When we disagree, it helps to remember that our differences often seem more marked than they really
are. Here are some hints for finding a path back to agreement.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.
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