The Binary Attention Model

Fresh bruschetta is divine. Tomatoes blushing the deepest of reds. Garlic oil infushing the toasted ciabatta with sharp spikes of flavour. Fresh basil slicing through the rich tastes, elevating each bite. Even better by the sea…the light, warm breeze carrying salty notes and distant musicality of the waves breaking against the shoreline. Cool white wine refreshing…

Do you agree Tom?

Four words that evaporate the ocean and shroud the sun. Everyone is looking at me.

Yeah I think we’ve covered everything there, unless there’s something specific you were worried about?

A rapid access reply and a believable delivery that diffuses the bomb placed at my feet. Phew.

The idea that I can successfully split my attention without diluting the quality of thought to each recipient is as much a fantasy as the sun-soaked tables and ocean breeze of that imaginary lunch. But in spite of this, I habitually divert attention from what’s in front of me all the time.

Meetings are the harbinger of such focus subdivision. One rambling sentence from an attendee and I’m the one rambling across the web.

Joining meetings remotely furthers this fiction – other attendees relegated to a single window, their rich physicality discarded, their words compressed to an “optimal” bitrate. Of course I can read the continuous stream of messages, compose replies, or perhaps surf some far-flung corner of the web while scoring my day with the occupational noise of meeting participants’ contributions to a discussion.

This sort of frenetic fumbling of time uses continual motion to form the illusion of progress. If I’m always moving, I must be making progress.

Left: the frenetic fumbling, Right: the thoughtful direction.

But if we’re optimising for forward motion, rather than just motion itself, it’s clear that splitting is suboptimal.

Is such attention splitting such a bad thing? In the majority case when splitting between equally unimportant targets – yes. We know the cognitive cost of context switching, so we’re absolutely degrading the experience for not just ourselves, but those that receive our low-fi focus.

Natural selection has imbued us with a powerful hypervisor which sits below the level of consciousness – a sensory sentry who has a direct line to the centre of attention should the inputs seem important. That car horn that makes you jump. That awful jolt awake when something goes bump in the night. Even in sleep, the sentry watches, hears, and feels – ready to delegate conscious attention when the moment calls for it.

Perhaps we should consciously increase the trust we place in our sentries – they’re experts at monitoring potential distractions so we needn’t be.

To inhabit the present moment as wholly as possible is surely a useful exercise in productivity. I can already feel that avoiding attention splitting is going to be a difficult habit to break, but I’m resolved to do just that and experiment with being maximally invested in each and every task at hand.

A neccessary condition of this is to be more skeptical of time allocation. To apply binary attention means less incremental progress on other tasks (regardless of the quality of that progress), and therefore I’ll be seeking to optimise meeting time to the minimal-effective dose as much as possible. If my mind begins to wander, if I feel the pull of some other task, I owe it to the people I interact with to be entirely present.

Now, what’s the best bruschetta recipe?