Interestingly, we see it in our vocabulary for deep creative work. We don’t speak of persistent epiphanies, lumbering insights or extended ‘eureka’s; rather, even our most inspired working day admits a level of natural fluctuation, and we tend to accept that the peaks are unerringly ephemeral. Most curious, however, is our response to the insight. Instead of preparing conditions which map onto this seemingly inevitable variance, we often act as though all hours were created equal.
For those lucky enough to choose when and how their work will be done, giving this variance its due can be significant. When we take circadian fluctuation as a starting point (rather than a spanner in the works of the nine-to-five), suddenly we open the door to a variety of questions regarding workflow, the staging of tasks, and the importance of deep conceptual thinking and creativity when high-level attention is limited. I’ll try to address just three of these questions:
In 2018, a popular VoucherCloud survey reported the memorable ‘2 hours and 53 minutes of daily productivity’ you may be familiar with. While the study focused on the self-reports of just 1,989 UK office workers, it was curious to hear my office-working friends accept the findings without hesitation. On bringing it up in conversation, I noticed a brief moment’s introspection was all it took for most to summon the response, ‘Yep, sounds about right.’
I lean on the anecdotal because our common understanding of cognition and attention is worth tracking — after all, we don’t always seek out journals of cognitive science to learn about our own brains and behaviors. A famous example of this is found in the work of Carol Dweck on ‘Fixed versus Growth Mindsets’; here, Dweck and colleagues reveal that our very perceptions regarding human intelligence and cognition can influence performance and willingness to persevere on difficult tasks (3). So while I wouldn’t take the click-worthy ‘2 hours and 53 minutes’ too closely to heart, my friends’ reactions to this information (and perhaps your own reaction, dear reader) are significant. They infer, at least, that many of us operate with a strong intuition that productive attention is limited.
Why is this? Why can’t we focus intensely for 12 hours without interruption? Or call up our most inspired and clear-minded attention on demand? One factor could be attention’s seemingly inextricable tie with circadian rhythms. If you’ve ever noticed a 3pm lull or an early morning buzz; if you’ve felt more creative in the late evening (4) or perhaps laser-focused just prior to lunch, then you likely understand the strong pull of biology on cognitive performance. Willing yourself to simply ‘think harder’ when the brain has turned to afternoon mush, for example, can be worse than futile — it can often provide a springboard for unnecessary anxiety, guilt and the onset of a meek, dejected headbanging.
However, even these deeply ingrained rhythms can’t account for the full variance of attention we experience each day. While our biological clocks play a significant role, there are countless other factors to influence the arrival of cognitive clarity or dullness, including sleeping patterns 5, nutrition, exercise 6, and emotional troubles (as well as just about everything else that could change your state of mind from day to day). This leaves us with an important degree of unpredictability — especially when it comes to those most important flashes of clarity and inspiration.
For creative professionals, or anyone whose work depends on high-level conceptual or creative thinking, it’s in these moments of what I would call (unimaginatively) ‘best attention’ that the magic really happens. Understanding that these moments are unpredictable, exponentially valuable, and impossible to sustain, I believe, means shifting our workflow accordingly. Really, it’s just about acknowledging the fact that we will not always be at our best — and that it may help to be mindful of what we choose to do in those moments of sharpness and the hours which follow.
As with any limited resource, strategies of distribution differ widely. However, when I speak with creatives whose work often depends on such moments of unfettered attention, I find two things happening above most others:
The second case is straightforward enough. If our best moments are unpredictable, sometimes they will strike while performing a perfectly ordinary task; there’s nothing wrong with sending emails akin to the letters of Rilke, but redirecting that attention through a different channel may produce something more substantial.
The first approach is more interesting. And when you have the freedom to lean into inspiration as it arrives, it can be the natural temptation. Instead of clocking administrative tasks at supersonic speeds, you may let yourself pivot to follow an emerging creative direction. That new direction is then explored, molded into a concept, captured in a sketch, then perhaps quickly translated into a rough model, written draft or strategic plan. By this stage, the momentum is strong; if you could finish it in one sitting, you would. It’s a race to exhaust oneself upon the page or screen, one which naturally peters out as clarity wanes or you begin to notice diminishing returns.
This is a strategy, to be sure. In fact, in the rapid transition from inspiration to sketch to model, it’s possible to extend the length of a ‘productive session’. This staged progression might be what allows for those seemingly superhuman marathons of attention — staying up late through the night to complete a project which might otherwise take weeks of stop-starting efforts. However, even the most remarkable bouts of sustained attention can fail to leave a project in its final form. There will always be sections to build-out, revisions to be made and fundamental coherencies to be reviewed.
Further, when you exhaust an idea in one dedicated sitting, there seems little hope of leaving a neat entry point for future additions, revisions and alterations. This, I think, has to do with the necessary development of complexity as we move through an idea (loosely represented in the figure below).
Hemingway famously wrote in his Monologue to the Maestro, ‘The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.’ There may be more to this than the usual annotation, ‘That way, it’s always easy to get started again.’ When you are going good, I would add, implies a state of mind which will inevitably fade. Rather than stopping completely, however, I’d like to make a case for merely constraining ourselves to specific tasks which will contribute the most value going forward — through those working hours we know are bound to be less excitable, inspired or capable of making deep, coherent and creative connections.
In a way, it’s an extension of that expression most commonly misattributed to Einstein: ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend the first 55 minutes thinking about the problem, then 5 minutes thinking about solutions.’ (The original source most likely being an employee of the Stainless Processing Company, William H. Markle, whose original phrasing was the less dramatic, though cleaner: ‘…I’d spend the first two-thirds attempting to define what the problem is.’ 7) Without focusing on the ratio of time spent, our ‘Einsteinian’ wisdom tells us that the way we set up or conceptualize a problem is, perhaps, the most difficult and important task — actually solving it is something of an afterthought.
This is where we might choose to allocate our limited resource. By leveraging our ‘best attention’ against the setting up of future conditions, we may just get the most bang for our cognitive-processing-buck. As opposed to chasing the muse down its most available rabbit hole — spreading it thin across design, implementation and maintenance — it may be worthwhile to hold ourselves to the more abstract and conceptual. By this model, we would need to first recognize which tasks tend to bring us the most future reward, and which can be left for the lulls, dips and more suggestible moments of indifference (say, when the completion of a task depends on how easily it can be accessed).
These are some tasks or processes which I tend to see the most return from:
*An open-source and more exhaustive list of best, default and lesser attention tasks will be added to the materials listed at www.thinkingonce.com/attention. Feel free to add your piece to the list for others who may share similar roles or challenges.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any rigorously tested data to show for the claim that ‘allocating best attention to higher order thinking processes brings greater overall returns than spending it on implementation tasks’. However, what I do have is a crude estimate; put together from self-observation during my time spent working as a copywriter. Taking word count as my conveniently neat metric for output (not a profound measure of quality, but an important indicator for the work I was doing), I was able to write roughly 1,060 more words in a day (+31%) by using 75 minutes of close attention to strictly set-up my outlines, main concepts and flow for each piece in advance. This was compared with my more default approach, which was to get as much writing done in my sharpest period (generally, between 10:00–11:30am).
A non-scientific representation of the findings would look something like this, with a 2 hour break between 12:00pm and 2:00pm:
Case 1 — Exhaust Approach: TOTAL — 3,400 words
Case 2 — Leverage Approach: TOTAL — 4,460 words
While this isn’t a developed framework, it may help to see how the ideas of this article could move in sequence toward a desired outcome:
To ride the wave of our fluctuating selves and see how close we might get to reaching our best work in the time given.
Identifying & Allocating States of Attention.
What would need to change in your work environment?
‘I felt things were going good, so I resisted chasing a single direction and tried to stay with the deeper ideas.’
‘Everything about the project was beginning to irritate me, so I decided to take a break. Instead of forcing myself to work on something else, I went for a walk and thought about nothing at all.’
‘Every day, I have 15 emails I need to respond to, and I wander between them for over an hour each morning. Next time I’m feeling sharp, I’m going to come up with a system that cuts that time in half.’
‘Our studio used to be known for its innovative, award-winning design — now we’re so busy with clients that we never get to test our creative limits. By keeping my talented team busy for 8 full hours, am I really letting them explore their best work?’
Our best work doesn’t conform to any dedicated box or framework — but it does have a limit. At the very least, I find that an awareness of personal working rhythms can reduce some of the common friction found in our systems; such as the time spent reworking projects, fighting our own biology and fretting over which task ought to come next.
If it feels safe to try, give one of the above methods a run and track the results. I’ve found that the best improvements tend to come when a period of reflection is scheduled in, giving yourself a chance to make sense of your progress or efforts and iterate as needed.