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A Productivity Lesson from a Classic Arcade Game

September 6th, 2016 · 23 comments

snake-625px

The Distracted Gamer

A reader recently shared with me an interesting observation from his own life.

To provide some context, this reader is a fan of the classic arcade game snake (shown above). This game is hard: as your snake grows, it requires an increasing amount of concentration to avoid twisting back on yourself and ending the round.

What this reader noticed was that whenever he paused the game for a quick interruption (e.g., answering a text or talking to someone who walked into the room), he became significantly more likely to fail soon after returning to play.

These arcade struggles might not sound that surprising, but they turn out to be a great example of a psychological effect that every knowledge worker should know about: attention residue.

The Most Important Theory You’re Ignoring

The research literature on attention residue, which was pioneered by business professor Sophie Leroy, reveals that there’s a cost to switching your attention — even if the switch is brief.

When you turn your attention from one target to another, the original target leaves a “residue” that reduces cognitive performance for a non-trivial amount of time to follow.

This was likely the effect that was tanking my reader’s arcade performance: when he switched his attention to the new target presented by an interruption, and then back to his game, the resulting attention residue reduced his cognitive performance and therefore his game play suffered.

As I argued in Deep Work, this effect can have a profoundly negative impact on knowledge worker productivity.

In more detail, most knowledge workers who claim to single task are actually primarily working on one thing at a time, but punctuating this work with a frequent series of just checks (quick glances at text messages, email inboxes, slack channels, social media feeds, etc…just in case something important has arrived).

This type of pseudo-focus might seem better than old school multitasking (in which you try to work on multiple primary tasks simultaneously), but attention residue theory teaches us that it might be just as bad.

Each one of those just checks shifts your attention. Even if this shift is brief (think: twenty seconds in an inbox), it’s enough to leave behind a residue that reduces your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time to follow.

Similar to our reader from above losing his ability to play snake at a high level, your ability to write/code/strategize at a high level is significantly diminished every time you let your attention drift.

If, like most, you rarely go more than 10 – 15 minutes without a just check, you have effectively put yourself in a persistent state of self-imposed cognitive handicap. The flip side, of course, is to imagine the relative cognitive enhancement that would follow by minimizing this effect.

To put this another way: if you commit to long blocks without any interruption (not even the quickest of glances), you’ll be shocked by how much sharper and productive you feel.

23 thoughts on “A Productivity Lesson from a Classic Arcade Game

  1. Su says:

    Hey Cal,
    Your ideas have changed the way I work and think about my career. I love how much more efficient and productive I am now. I finish 8 hours work in 3 hours now. Thank you!

    However, I am facing a major challenge in my ability to work deep in office.
    I work in an open office, where it is common and acceptable behavior for people to go upto anyone and chat. They would talk to you even when you have your headphones on. This creates a lot of disruption.
    The short term solution for that was that I used to work from another floor in the office where people don’t know me, or I hid in a corner in a cafe to be unavailable. This worked for a while since my previous boss didn’t care where or how we worked as long as we got it done.
    But my new boss is very particular about us being seated on our desks from 9 to 5. We have tried speaking to her about this explaining how we are more productive in a quieter place, but she is not ready to budge her position.

    Any thoughts on how to deal with this will be welcome.
    Thanks!

    1. Dave Small says:

      Su –

      You’re in a challenging situation. I hope you don’t mind if I make an observation. After several decades in leadership, I’ve noticed some of the strongest employees have developed two skills while remaining highly professional, polite, and friendly.

      1) They tend not to get interrupted.
      2) If they are interrupted, they able to shorten the interruptions.

      This would indicate that not being interrupted is a learned skill.

    2. Study Hacks says:

      Have a discussion with your boss about the deep to shallow work ratio he/she wants you to hit. Then measure and report. When faced with hard numbers, the boss will have to face the prospect of admitting that he doesn’t want you — his highly trained employee — to do high-level cognitive work, or be more willing to consider changes to his the target. In other words, shift the conversation from what you don’t like to hitting a positive target that you both agreed on.

  2. Masud Shorif says:

    Thanks for this post Cal.

    However sometimes I feel it is almost impossible to work in a distraction free zone. For example I am a High School teacher. We sit with other teachers at the same room. So If I’d like to do some cognitive work, this is very tough. Because, every now and then one teacher might speak of something. Or they may even knock me to see what I’m doing.

    1. Tim says:

      Summer…?

      See Cal’s thoughts elsewhere (Deep Work goes into it) on “bi-modal” deep work that teacher / researchers do. Eg a professor might escape to a cabin for the summer break to do their serious writing.

  3. habo says:

    Cal
    Would you consider checking the time (to make sure you haven’t worked past your work block) an interruption or just check?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      No, that’s fine. For a just check to be damaging it has to shift your attention to an unrelated professional context.

  4. A new challenge seems to have surfaced as we delve into the need to devote ourselves to long, uninterrupted spells of work:

    Location, location, location.

    For many, the ‘open office’ is the norm, and there is no luxury to escape to a quiet corner or a different room. Many businesses have an almost paranoid obsession with staff being ‘visible’.

    In some ways, you are insulated from this Cal, being an academic.

    But for the majority, the bane of an open office is the reality.

    This is an issue that definitely needs to be addressed, as knowledge workers seek the pot of performance gold at the end of the deep work rainbow.

  5. Cr0w says:

    How about studying? Should i learn 50 min and take 10 min break (i think, you proposed that in one of your books) or go with deep work (2h or more)?

    Greetings from Poland. Our academic year starts at 1st October. Sorry for any mistakes in my english.

  6. Jack Vinson says:

    This is great. Regarding the open office – or any other environment where outside interruptions seem to be the norm – my take on these is that it has become expected for me to drop whatever I am doing and respond to the person in front of me. We figured out how to ignore phones (voice mail!), but ignoring someone standing right there is harder.

    What I see needs to happen is that we change the mental balance. Rather than focus on being responsive, what if we focus on priorities. And this has to be a shared understanding. “Can you give me a minute?” “Is it critical, can I come by when I finish this?” Even agreed visual cues: headphones on, don’t bother them. Many techniques can really help.

  7. Anne says:

    Cal – thanks for the reminder about attention residue – another reason to get out of the inbox and back to deep work. I don’t know how you all tolerate the open office environment – I work from home with no one and I still use ear plugs. It’s just one step in my deep work ritual that Cal recommends people establish for themselves in his book.

  8. Dave Small says:

    Thanks Cal. Fantastic post.

    This presents a three-fold challenge to me.
    1. Am I initiating my own distractions?
    2. Am I allowing myself to be distracted?
    3. Am I distracting others?

    1. Carl says:

      Your post makes me think Dave, that at some point people are perceptive enough to know who they can interrupt, and ‘get away with it’ versus who they can’t.

      1. Dave Small says:

        Agree. Great way to put it Carl.

  9. Kristen Hartley says:

    I have never read any of Cal Newport’s writings before, but this article genuinely intrigued me and was exactly what I was needing. I recently returned from living in Argentina where I had a very strict schedule and no connection at all with social media for over a year. I felt very productive with each day and was truly amazed by how much I could accomplish in just 24 hours. Upon returning home to the United States it has been a real struggle for me, with the sudden accessibility to Facebook and other social media, to not become distracted or waste time. I have felt a great lack of productivity and ability to concentrate myself lately. I feel that the use of social media is acceptable, if used with purpose and not excessively. But recently starting college I can see just how many students are constantly on their phones or wasting hours of their day on social media. It really is addicting! I feel that many people now days are become less and less productive and living below their full potential of what they could accomplish due to the increased use of technology. I have noticed my little siblings as well, spending less time outside or playing with toys and more time with technology. This post has inspired me to better plan how I will use social media. It won’t kill me to have my Facebook signed out or phone off while doing homework, right? Thank you for this post!

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