Attention, Distraction, and Procrastination

In addition to being a fun book about how the brain works told through the lens of magic, Sleights of Mind has solidified some definitions for me that I previously struggled to articulate. What is attention; what’s a distraction? More saliently, how can we think more clearly about the two to better understand what is happening in our lives from moment to moment and day to day?


Macknik and Martinez describe attention as a spotlight. You can’t shine it on more than one thing at once. Beyond that, though, they describe two different kinds of attention: top-down and bottom-up attention. Top-down attention is making a conscious effort to keep the spotlight shining on some target. This could be writing Ruby code or cleaning out the garage. It’s a conscious effort to persist in a task.

In contrast, bottom-up attention is when your spotlight of attention is drawn to a new stimulus. It could be the sound of a kid crying or one of the myriad boops my phone can make. It could be something as simple and fleeting as how the sun reflected off that car’s side mirror as it drove by. When something happens in the world around me that deviates from the pattern that my brain is used to, it triggers the alarm on my attention spotlight.

By thinking of attention this way, neither top-down nor bottom-up attention is inherently bad. It’s like a hammer or a meat cleaver—the only value judgment is in how I use it.


In that case, what is a distraction? A distraction is any stimulus that produces an unwanted trigger of my bottom-up attention. It’s distracting when someone starts jackhammering a sidewalk in front of my window while I’m fixing a bug in some code. It’s not a distraction when your kid falls down on the playground and cries while you’re reading a book. Depending on what I’m doing, a notification on my phone could be a distraction. If it’s a calendar alarm to remind me to go have lunch with my wife1, that’s not a distraction at all. That’s a welcome source of bottom-up attention that leads me to something more meaningful in my life. If it’s some other ding, tri-tone,  tweet, or boop, it could be a distraction.

The other thing about distraction is that it’s not that the information is unwelcome. It means that it’s unwelcome right now. When your phone dings that you have a new email, it’s not that the email is unwelcome. What’s unwelcome is the ding! The likes, tags, and comments on Facebook aren’t unwelcome, but the shift in attention produced by the notification is undesirable. I know I can’t keep my top-down attention trained on the current task ad infinitum, so I know that eventually, I will shift my spotlight of focus from what I’m doing now and likely to something that doesn’t require as much of my energy.

What’s the cost of these bottom-up stimuli? At a minimum, each one represents a decision your brain has to make. It’s not a conscious decision like which suit to wear today2, but an unconscious and automatic decision that diverts a few precious cycles of the computer between your ears. Depending on my signal to noise ratio with them, this can be a pretty high cost. What I find I need is to minimize the number of these stimuli so that when one does come through, my brain can pretty safely assume that it’s not a distraction. I think of my bottom-up attention as an inbox that my brain has to process. I try to maintain a very high signal to noise ratio in my email inbox by using things like VIPs, priority inbox, and good spam filtering. Now, I’m also applying the same principles to my bottom-up attention inbox.


Notice what I didn’t classify as a distraction. Facebook, email, Twitter, or Tumblr; video games; shoe shopping; tweaking my zsh profile; fiddling with my blog; revamping my television installation, remote control configuration, or OmniFocus configuration. Setting aside notifications, these all require top-down attention, which makes them necessarily not distraction. They require a willful direction of our attention spotlight toward a subject. I think a lot of the time, I can get really focused on something like this when I’m avoiding something else. Maybe I don’t know how to tackle a particular bug I need to fix. In that case, it’s attractive to launch Flipboard and see what folks are up to around the web or do some preliminary research on instant hot water taps for the kitchen. If I’m not looking forward to practicing my tuba because that section of the music I need to work on is really hard, I’ll go for a walk to level up my FitBit stats or put the dog through a training session or wash the dishes or grab a deck of cards or a half dollar and practice some sleights.

None of the things I listed is inherently bad. I enjoy a variety of things and it makes for an exciting and interesting life. But calling any of them a distraction is disingenuous. Facebook is no more of a distraction than television. Email is no more distracting than the grass growing in the yard or the dishes in the sink.

First Person Transitive

It’s up to me and you to be conscious of where we train the spotlight of our top-down attention. It also means taking appropriate measures to reduce the number of distractions and improve the signal to noise ratio for bottom-up attention stimuli so that when something comes in, it has a very good chance of being a welcome tap instead of a distraction.

If I get to the end of a day and find that I haven’t accomplished anything significant, I can only blame the spotlight operator. I don’t get to blame the actors or the stage. And I certainly don’t get to blame the spotlight.

1 See my previous post on calendar events

2 Michael Lewis’s profile of President Obama is a fascinating read. Quoting Obama, Lewis writes, “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”