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.”

It’s well established that my mind inhabits one of the most unreliable brains on the planet. That same brain doubles down on fallibility under the influence of narcotics. So, after my ACL surgery Thursday, (I know; I’m sick of hearing about it too!) I needed a way to remember to do some important things like taking medicine and keeping blood flowing to my calf and feet to guard against blood clots. Here’s what I ended up with


For the pill reminders, I set up a project in OmniFocus. It has two actions—”Take ibuprofen” and “Take antibiotic”—that are “Due again” in 8 hours and 6 hours respectively. When the alert goes off that the task is due, I take the pill(s), slide the alert, check off the task(s), and totally ignore this until the next time it makes a sound. This way, I can focus on things like sleep and consuming narcotics.


Unfortunately, tasks in OmniFocus can only be rescheduled in some number of hours, so I needed another approach for remembering to flex my ankles. “20 reps every 20 minutes” is the rule. So, I set up a custom timer in Timer by my friends at App Cubby. I set this timer with a simple tap. When it goes off, I silence it, do 20 ankle pumps, and then tap it twice to start it again. (Yes, I know there are ways to do this in OmniFocus, but they had drawbacks for things like sleeping.)

This post is probably a lot of “Yah, duh” to many of my friends and the rest are likely wondering, “Is this all about being doped up on Vicodin?” The point is that, even though you’re probably not hopped up on goofballs most days, your brain still needs permission to not think about the things it knows you have to do at some point but not right now. If you’ve ever found yourself thinking, “I need to call my mom,” or “I’m out of coffee” and holding on to that thought like a mantra you can’t let yourself forget, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Even if you’re not high.

I’ve been participating in a Glassboard board about productivity where Eugene asked about keeping on top of calendar events. Here’s the lengthy answer Glassboard wouldn’t let me post:

This sounds like the same thing I have been through. Even though I use THE HELL out of my calendar, I get caught up in things I’m working on and then space out on the fact that I’m supposed to leave to do $THING. A good example of this is lunch time. My wife and I have lunch together most every day. But for the longest time, I would space out while working and forget to find a stopping place and leave on time. Then I would be frazzled when she reminded me over IM or SMS and I had to scramble to get there on time. This meant I was not in the best mental state when I got to lunch to fully enjoy her company. Terrible…

The first thing is to get really good at knowing how long things take. Now, I have two alarms for lunch. The first goes off 25 minutes before lunch time. When it does, I know I have 10 minutes to find a stopping place. The second one goes off 10 minutes later and that’s when I actually pack up my stuff and head to the car. This takes about 5 minutes and then it takes about 10 minutes for me to drive to lunch.

Why am I beating that scenario to death? Because it took me MONTHS to figure it out!! I’m a complete disaster. But the only way I got better at this was by paying attention and being more honest and less optimistic about how fast I can do something. “Hey, idiot, it takes you more than 10 minutes to get from sitting in a chair with your laptop open to lunch with your wife. Stop lying to yourself!” “You have never fixed any bug past a typo in less than 30 minutes!”

What does that mean to you? First, be honest with yourself about how much time you need to make those appointments happen in a sane way. Travel time between appointments. (Not just driving time. How long from sitting here to sitting there. Does it take you four minutes to get from your car to your cube? Longer? Budget the time in.) Time to gather your thoughts before and after appointments. By all means, don’t schedule meetings with no cushion between them, back-to-back phone calls, etc.

But don’t stop there. The other side of this coin is that you have to know and be honest about how long tasks take. If you finish something and look up at your clock, don’t think to yourself, “Oh, I have ten minutes. I can totally [fix that bug, reply to that email from my boss, return that phone call, google that question I had, whatever]!” Someone smart recently said that, really, assume anything you need to do will take an hour from first movement to completion. “That’s ridiculous! I’m just going to the grocery store real quick.” Oh yah? Time yourself and argue with the clock. If you find project work and client calls or ad hoc meetings are usurping your time, the time to recognize that is when someone says, “Hey, do you have a minute?” Or when the phone rings. If you answer the phone in a small interstitial chunk between appointments, don’t be surprised that you get wrapped up in that conversation and flaunt the tyranny of the calendar. Let it go to voicemail or tell the person to come back later or ask the question over email so you can give it quality time and consideration. And as I’ve heard Merlin say more than once: Not in a dick way. Let clients know that you can’t provide the highest service on an interrupt-driven basis. And be honest with yourself that you can’t do your best project work when your brain is somewhere worrying about what appointment you’re about to space and you can’t do any meaningful project work in between those calendar appointments. If you think half an hour you squeeze out between appointments to work on a project that’s ostensibly important to you is a good strategy, you’re totally fooling yourself.

If it sounds like I’m mad, it’s because I’m mad more at me than anything. I am a total dipshit about this kind of stuff. These are the lessons I have had to learn through much trial and error, so hopefully I can shed some light on things if you’re in a boat even remotely similar to mine, and it sounds to me like you are.