Just Enough Focus

Why All the Time You Spend Not Writing Can Help, Not Hurt, You

Posted Sep 25, 2017

Focus today seems an increasingly scarce commodity, competing with all things digital—and the ever-expanding work-day enabled by cell phones, email, Skype, and texts. In this environment, even the most efficient workaholics amongst us can feel as though we're skiving off when we pause for five minutes—or thirty-five—to read the New York Times when we're in hip-deep in writing anything from a proposal to standard operating procedures.

The good news: that fiddling around might actually bolster your problem-solving, resulting in better writing when you get back around to that blinking cursor. Writing demands two entirely different kinds of attentional focus: diffuse and analytic. Highly correlated with creative problem-solving, diffuse focus works best for early stages of planning complex documents or for spotting and forging connections during the writing of a rough draft. In contrast, analytic focus helps writers to put together the linear, tightly argued sentences and paragraphs necessary to produce a clear and convincing later or final draft.

During analytic thinking, we’re blind to most stimuli, as researchers Ansburg and Hill discovered, which may map onto the precise, focused attention writers need to meet the high cognitive overhead necessary to produce final drafts. In contrast, with diffuse focus, writers switch tasks and shift their attention, instead, onto something entirely unrelated to the problem at hand. However, instead of procrastinating or merely giving in to distraction, this shift to diffuse focus seems to foment problem-solving, enabling writers to forge connections between seemingly unrelated data points or to resolve particularly pesky problems.

Now for the bad news: if you’re looking for diffuse focus on your phone, forget it. The mere presence of a smartphone in your pocket or in sight will put a serious dent in both your working memory and fluid intelligence, impacting your ability to problem-solve or write, period.

References

Ansburg PI and Hill K. (2003) Creative and analytic thinkers differ in their use of attentional resources. Personality and Individual Differences 34: 1141-1152. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00104-6

Ward AF, Duke K, Gneezy A, et al. (2017) Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One's Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2: 140-154. https://doi.org/10.1086/691462