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I have come to realize that a lot of mental energy and focus is wasted on the intake, filtering, and processing of what ends up considered completely useless sensory input. Things like various types of extractions, emails, people trying to sell you stuff on pretext of trying to help, billboard signs, junk mail, B.S. bingo, verbose communicators, false alerts, paranoia propaganda and the list goes on in the hyper age of information we live in. Heck, maybe even this post is irrelevant and you just wasted 10-15 sec (I hope not).

I have also come to realize that my mental energy and attention are very finite and limited -- therefore a second wasted on processing useless stimuli is a second never to be recovered. I want to improve my ability to discern deserving targets of attention focus. Part of the reason is that, due to some cognitive patterns, I easily fall into sensory overload state (if there is too much auditory or visual input to be processed, I quickly run out of RAM and become confused and disoriented -- but if the amounts of data are reasonable, I do fine). So I would like to develop internal heuristics to weed out external garbage that comes to me and retain good stuff as much as possible.

Of course, such an approach, if carelessly applied can be hazardous to your executive functioning, work, relationships, even life. E.g. you just decide you can take paying attention to only two other vehicles on the road will likely get you killed. So I am looking for some scientific studies how to optimize and streamline your cognitive functioning by safely and carefully "cutting corners" in your sensory intake.

Much appreciated

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5 Answers

I'm not aware of any scientific studies but I believe the problem should be tackled context-by-context. For the (white collar) work context the best first step is to get a private office with a door that closes. When I got mine my productivity soared because of the less irrelevant external stimuli reaching me and I wish I had gotten one years ago, no matter what the expense.

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I'm thinking you're working on the wrong question. Instead of getting better at handling the interrupts, reduce the interrupts.

For example with e-mail, is your client set to beep, or otherwise notify you when you receive a message? Turn those off and set your client to get new mail every hour. Or... ready for this... turn off automatic retrieval completely. Only download new e-mail when you click the get e-mail button.

Setup 2-3 times a day where you will process e-mail. Honor those times and don't do e-mail outside them. You've now reduced the level of interrupts that take you out of a flow state.

Is it safe to do this? Absolutely. You presumably are not doing e-mail while you are at lunch, taking a break, talking to your boss in his office, at a meeting, in the bathroom, spending time with your family, sleeping ...

Apply this same method to other interrupts.

The best way to get better at managing interrupts is to reduce the interrupts you accept into your life.

When it comes to dealing with junk mail, etc., delete with extreme prejudice. Don't think twice. Just delete it or toss that junk snail-mail in the recycle and move on. It gets faster and easier as you practice.

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Start with an inventory of everything you want to achieve. Include in this list anything from the loftiest most abstract goal to the most mundane physical task. Bills you have to pay, cats you have to feed books you want to read, write it all down.

if its abstract try, think and identify what activities will make it real. If its physical task think about whether it fulfills a higher purpose for you.

Once you have a real inventory of cool things you want to do, you'll see that is probably more than you can achieve on any given day. Knowing this should let you say no to all the other noise. and hopefully youll focus more on whats truly important to you.

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If you haven't done so already, you may want to consider installing ad blocking software. Such software is freely available for all major web browsers.

You may also want to try Mindfulness training. It's a meditation technique which, after a couple of weeks of training (7 minutes per day is enough), will let you actively steer your focus so that you aren't as easily distracted in a busy environment. There is a body of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of this training.

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Regarding emails, phone calls etc., there are very well understood solutions to these sort of interruptions. When you need a couple of hours to just focus, try:

  • Set your phone to divert
  • Turn of your email
  • Ensure you have no IM app running
  • If necessary, be out of the office (open plan offices can be very prone to interruption - do you have study rooms)
  • Use headphones with noise/music you find useful to work with. For some this means ambient noise. For me, heavy metal music :-)

In terms of distractions in everyday life, like billboards etc. the solution taught by the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) in the UK is as follows:

  • Identify everything that is going on around you
  • Quickly categorise it as risk or non-risk
  • Prioritise by risk
  • Take action

So to interpret that away from the driving scenario, take in all visual stimulus (your brain can easily cope with this) and rapidly categorise it as useful/non-useful. Initially you may need to consciously do this, but very soon you will find you don't even notice advertising billboards any more.

Very simple skills - very easy to learn, and you will simultaneously have a more relaxed life and annoy marketing execs :-)

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