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When Maya Angelou wrote her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she rented a hotel room as a working hideaway, arriving at 6:30 a.m. and writing into the afternoon. She stripped the paintings from the wall as unwelcome distractions, but along with her writing tools – such as yellow pads, a dictionary, and a bottle of sherry – she brought distractions of her own, crossword puzzles and a deck of cards.

As a youngster, influenced by her grandmother, she decided there is a Big Mind and a Little Mind and when you want to delve deeply into a topic or write creatively you need to provide a respite, and that’s the Little Mind of crossword puzzles, cards and, these days, perhaps even social media.

University of California informatics professor Gloria Mark, probably the leading academic studying how we interact with computers, interruptions and distractions, says the late Ms. Angelou’s habits point the way for all of us to gain better control of our lives. “Our devices are smart, but we must be smarter in how we use them,” she writes in Attention Span.

It starts by understanding you have limited cognitive resources that when spent must be replenished if you are again to perform effectively that day. You need to be alert to the cognitive depletion that is occurring and the difficulty of the task you are engaged in, monitoring and adjusting your activities. Rapid shifts of attention – common these days, with a world of hyperlinked information at our fingertips and e-mail pouring in – can cause fatigue, poor performance and burnout.

Many people seek flow, moments when they are so immersed in a task they are enormously productive, unaware of anything else, time flying by. But Prof. Mark, who experienced that sense of flow in her pre-academic years as an artist, says her research found it actually rarely occurs in workplaces.

Instead, using as criteria the challenge of the task and the amount of our engagement, she offers this model of our attentional states:

  • Focus: We are absorbed in a task that has significant challenge. This can be a precondition to flow, but probably will not involve that delightful experience. “It also costs a lot of cognitive resources to maintain focus as the phrase ‘paying attention’ conveys,” she writes.
  • Rote: This is when you are highly engaged, but not particularly challenged – involved in a mechanical and routine activity, like Ms. Angelou playing solitaire. This uses fewer cognitive resources and can help you replenish. Candy Crush, anyone?
  • Bored: When you are not engaged and not challenged, you are underusing your cognitive resources. It’s the opposite of flow as you think of how slowly time is passing.
  • Frustrated: When you are highly challenged but not engaged in what you’re doing you can feel like you’re banging your head against the wall. An example might be when you’re desperate to finish an assignment from your boss but it’s not going well.

That is your life, in four parts. You probably recognize them through the rhythm of your day, with peaks and valleys. Her research finds sustained peak times of focus in the late morning, around 11 a.m., and after lunch, with focus declining after 3 p.m. because cognitive resources have probably been expended and your tank is empty. And some of that exhaustion results from interruptions – many of them interrupting our current focus to explore something related or to find cognitive relief.

She has many specific suggestions, but the overall theme is to reframe your goal from maximizing your productivity while on your devices to maintaining a healthy psychological balance while still achieving your goals. “Keep thinking of your internal gauge and recognize when your tank is full, but also when you need to stop and replenish that tank. Using your different types of attention purposefully while considering your resources can help you achieve your goals and still maintain an internal psychological balance,” she says.

Quick Hits from Ms. Mark’s Attention Span:

  • Research found people are happiest when doing easy, rote work. Handling e-mail brings out the most negative emotions. There are two types of e-mail personalities: Those who check it continuously and those who check only a few times a day. Those checking repeatedly tend to score high on conscientiousness, so changing styles might be difficult.
  • Social media is designed to keep you immersed in that activity rather than returning to work. Before going onto social media or reading news, plan a hook to pull you out: For example, look at social media 10 minutes before a scheduled phone call.
  • Create friction to make it harder to be distracted by your phone. When you sit down to work, leave your phone in another room or a drawer. Hide the apps that suck you in so they aren’t the first thing you see when looking at the home screen.
  • Uncompleted and interrupted tasks drain our mental resources and increase stress. When interrupted, research subjects surprisingly handled e-mail faster than when not interrupted, using fewer words, although politeness and accuracy were not affected. That may be because they are trying to compensate for time lost to the interruption.
  • The shorter the sleep duration the night before, the shorter a person’s attention span on computers and phones the next day, according to research. Not getting enough sleep saps our ability to control our attention.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.