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Imagine this article is a tasty morsel. In fact, imagine you are a squirrel, and this paragraph is an acorn.
You gobble it quickly … it’s not that big. And there’s another one right here beside it.
You can have an entire delicious meal, just by moving on from one nut to the next, here in this patch of acorns.
Or you could abandon these delightful acorns and go searching for another source of nourishment and pleasure somewhere else.
That’s the process we all go through all day every day—the human version of Optimal Foraging Theory.
Stay with me here—it’s fascinating.
In its original form Optimal Foraging Theory explains how animals make their choices as they forage for food. Stay here in this patch of food taking in more nourishment, building more energy? Or expend energy to leave this particular patch and go searching for another place to chow down?
Natural selection favors the creatures who get the equation right. They don’t wander away from perfectly suitable food in a quest for something else to eat. They find a balance between energy in and energy out. If the next patch of food is close and easily accessible, they’re more likely to go for it than if they’d have to work to find it.
What does that have to do with us?
Instead of acorns that nourish bodies, think nuggets of information that nourish minds. And engage, entertain, or distract minds.
Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley uses the Optimal Foraging Theory to explain how we respond to the human drive for stimulation, for new and different information.
If it’s close at hand and easy to get to, we’re all in for abandoning our current task and turning our attention to that shiny object over there.
This is how we wind up, say, writing an article about optimal foraging and stopping after a few paragraphs to check that text message. Which turns out to be nothing – a notification about weekly screen time.
But as long as our … okay, my … phone is in now my hand, might as well do a quick email check. And there’s The New Republic article explaining why the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis is not the vaunted October surprise.
Like most people, I imagine, I’ve been absorbed in this ongoing drama. And like many, I’m not sure what to believe. (I’m a bit envious of those who are sure.) Anyway, TNR’s take sucks me in.
And, of course, there are links! They can take me in any number of other directions…
But it’s almost time for my 11:00 meeting, so I need to spruce myself for Zoom. And do a little quick set design. (Clear the clutter, adjust the lighting, make sure the camera’s pointing in the right direction.) …
… And now it’s after noon and I’m finally coming back to the article I was writing more than an hour ago. I try to pick up where I left off and make sense of the notes I jotted down earlier and find that perfect quote I’m sure I saw online somewhere.
This scenario is familiar to you, isn’t it?
This is what our days are like. We talk about going down the rabbit hole, following the breadcrumbs, or getting sucked into the vortex. It all amounts to foraging gone awry.
All that other stimulation is right there like another patch of acorns. What would have to happen for us to stay longer in this tree? To stay focused on this task before jumping off to one we didn’t even intend to address today?
Gazzaley says the first step is awareness. Just seeing how we are, what we do, and the impact it has on our work and our life.
I’ve been studying that for myself and it isn’t hard to see how much time and energy I lose to foraging. And how much I don’t get done as a result. It takes hours to finish an article I could have written in one because of all the minutes I spent dashing off to do something else. And then losing more time in the effort to refocus and get back on track.
Once aware of what we’re up against, Gazzaley recommends some changes in the way we work so we can actually get some work done. Here are some of his ideas and others’.
Start with using one screen at a time. Yes, it’s convenient to work on a document on your laptop, keep email open on your tablet, and maybe scout a website on your phone. It’s also deadly for focus and concentration. Gazzaley suggests that you pick one screen.
Ditto with programs and apps. If you’re writing a document, close your email so you’re not distracted by activity in your inbox. Or the urge to check and see if there’s activity in your inbox. Reading a website? Close that tab before you open another one.
Silence your phone. Turn off the alerts or take it out of the room. If it absolutely has to be accessible, put it somewhere out of reach and turn it face down so it’s not in your line of sight beckoning you.
Ditch notifications from social media and other programs. Those dings and pop-ups signaling you to stop what you’re doing and look over there! How can you get anything done when they’re all tugging on your sleeve, demanding your attention?
Set specific times for your activities. Decide when you’re going to reply to emails, for instance, and limit yourself to those times. You don’t need to be at everyone’s beck and call all day long. Ditto for social media.
I’ve been getting more disciplined about LinkedIn—posting first thing in the morning, then waiting several hours before I go back and add comments to others’ posts and reply to comments on mine.
Given that we’re all working from home, LinkedIn is my water cooler, cafeteria, and coffee room; that’s where I interact with other humans during the workday. And, spending too much time there is like standing around socializing at someone’s desk in the old days. It diminishes productivity in a big way.
Take a real break every now and then. Get up from your desk and move. Walk around, do a little exercise, shake things up however you can. Going away from your screen gives your eyes a rest and the movement is energizing. It literally improves your brain function.
Better yet, go outside. Even a few minutes in a natural environment is restorative. In fact, researchers say even looking at pictures of natural scenes can make a difference.
Try an actual conversation with a real live person. Maybe it has to be a phone chat these days instead of going out for coffee together. Still, it can help you take a real break from your project and then refocus.
You know what they say about laughter. It’s true. Laughing will literally change the hormones in your body so you feel less stress, more energy and increased positive feelings. That’s bound to help you stay focused and resist the impulse to wander off in search of stimulation.
Want to join me in resisting the impulse to forage for fascination? Post a comment and tell me you’re in.