The attention paradox: Winning by slowing down

How to Focus & Improve Cognitive Performance

James Hewitt, Head of Science & Innovation, Hintsa Performance

Time is our most valuable, non-renewable resource. But are our distracted habits – the symptoms of a modern, always on hyper connected world – leading us to invest it in the wrong places?

Let’s consider the work cycle of Jing – a hypothetical manager based in a typical multinational businesss. She gets out of bed at 6:30am and, like four in five of us, checks her smartphone within 15 minutes of waking. She makes herself breakfast and spends half-an-hour scanning her phone and checking e-mail. On average, Jing, like most people, spreads six hours of e-mail use over each day.

At 8am, she gets in her car for the commute to work (she’s not among the 18% of workers who admit to checking their e-mail while driving) and spends the rest of her morning in meetings, during which she’s checking her phone and pretending to write notes on her laptop (92% of workers admit to multi-tasking during meetings). She goes for a short walk at lunch and makes sure not to check her smartphone during this time.

Jing’s afternoon is dominated by interweaving tasks, mainly phone calls, e-mails, instant messages and social media. Mixed into this digital concoction are the other distractions of the open office: gossip, snack breaks and noisy co-workers.

She leaves the office at 5:30pm and does a few jobs around the house, has an evening meal, then enjoys three hours of leisure time. As 70% of people do, she checks her e-mail while watching TV, spending most of her ‘down-time’ switching constantly between screens: the TV, smartphone and tablet.

After checking her phone for the final time (she’s now at a tally of 149 for the day), she tries to fall asleep, but the blue light from her late-night screen time has suppressed her melatonin production by 22%.

“As 70% of people do, she checks her e-mail while watching TV, spending most of her ‘down-time’ switching constantly between screens.”

If you consider Jing’s day from the perspective of cognitive work, she is faced with three key challenges:

Time pressure:  How much of her time was actually focused on an activity?
Switches:  How often did she have to switch from one thing to the other?
Complexity:  How complex, or routine, were the tasks that Jing had to deal with?

Thinking in terms of cognitive gears

We can use these three questions to give us a sense of the overall cognitive load for a given time-period. You can think about this cumulative load in the context of three ranges, which represent three ‘cognitive gears.’ These three gears provide us with a useful heuristic device. We can use them as a quick and simple way to plan and reflect on the allocation of cognitive resources, and distributing cognitive work through the day.

Like most of the knowledge workers I speak to, Jing spent most her day stuck in cognitive middle-gear, in a state of constant partial attention. Very little time was spent in low gear, and a fraction was invested in a focused and intense high gear. We can all relate to this in our daily lives, but what are the consequences of this way of working?

Busy being busy

Many of us spend our days continuously interweaving tasks, taking small bites from modern life’s ‘buffet’ of technology as we move among our inbox, social-media feed, internal messaging systems and smartphone.

Our workplace environments can make us feel productive and efficient. We get a lot of things done. But are we making our lives more difficult than they need to be? Is our rest and recovery being compromised? Are we on the right track to maximise our impact and the unique value we can bring, or are we driving fast but getting nowhere?

Addicted to e-mail

Our e-mail and communication habits represent a microcosm of the environment of our knowledge economy. Habitual checking on missed calls and messages can become an addictive behaviour pattern, increasing stress and disturbing sleep.

“Even if our behaviour is not addictive, spending our days in a persistent state of moderate cognitive exertion, from morning until night, has a physiological and psychological impact.”

In contrast, simply quarantining e-mail within shorter periods, rather than interweaving it throughout the day, is associated with a number of benefits. A recent study found that checking e-mail three times per day, as opposed to as often as we can, is associated with less stress and improved physical and psychological wellbeing.

Attention paradox

Our technology can be powerful and effective, but it is a double-edged sword. We need to learn to wield it carefully, with great skill, as part of a mindful consideration of our working patterns. The same knowledge workers who need to nurture their capacity to focus their attention, solve complex problems and be creative are the most at risk of the fractured attention our modern working habits create.

Winning by slowing down


Top-performers, in sport and in business, appear to distribute their cognitive and physical efforts in periods of high-intensity and focus, followed by periods of effective recovery and regeneration. This approach allows them to focus on what’s most important and maximise their development and output, sustainably.

Many of us would profit from creating the same distinct periods in our day-to-day lives. This ‘polarised’ approach ‘rescues’ time, thanks to reduced task-switching, reduces stress and facilitates better progress on tasks with strategic and long-term significance. We also get to enjoy more creative down-time, and better recovery.

In practice, a ‘polarised’ day could look something like this:

Low Gear: Relaxation and recovery (low complexity, low switching)
Protect this time by avoiding distractions (switching) and pseudo-work (social media, etc.) It’s possible to enter ‘low gear’ in brief periods through the day, but this should also take place over longer periods, usually during the evening.

Medium Gear: Routine and quick tasks (medium complexity, higher switching)
Some switching is inevitable. You are likely to be able to complete the medium-gear tasks, such reading and replying to most e-mails quite quickly as the work is not too complex. Complex issues should be avoided during ‘middle gear’ switching periods, as it’s much easier to make mistakes. Schedule separate time for the complex issues you discover while working in this gear.

High Gear: Focussed and demanding tasks (High complexity, low switching)
Reserve longer periods for deep focus, to allocate cognitive resources to the complexity of the task, rather than wasting it on switching or because of time pressure. Switching tasks should be avoided to maintain focus and reduce unnecessary cognitive load.

We could all benefit from considering how we are distributing our cognitive load. In particular, what we are paying attention to and where we are investing our energy and time. If we learn from our findings, the effect on our wellbeing and performance could be exponential.