Bundle your attention and find flow with “cells”

ooh... science metaphor!

I briefly mentioned the “cell” — a longish, mostly uninterrupted block of time in which you focus on one creative objective — in my last post. A couple people have asked me to explain in a bit more detail how I use them to wrangle my day, so here we go.

Before I start, I should say that this idea isn’t mine — I borrowed it from a brilliant dude named Dorian Taylor, who writes interesting things about knowledge work all the time. You could start there, or just read on for how I’ve modified/implemented the tactic.

First, let’s resist the urge to “app”-ify this idea. The cell isn’t a magic pill for transmogrifying your messy wad of competing daily obligations into a zen garden of productive bliss. It’s a tactic, not a tool — it takes practice, and may not be foolproof or appropriate for every circumstance. It’s not even really about time management: it’s about attention-organizing. (The whole “app between your ears” bit again.)

There are only so many hours in the workday, but for me, attention is the real limiting factor. Chop up my attention into a bunch of little scattered bits, and they don’t all add up to much in terms of stuff-gotten-done/made. Attention needs continuity in order to produce meaningful output. How do you give yourself the best shot at maintaining that kind of continuity? You divide your attention into big healthy blobs instead of scattered bits. That’s the essence of the cell.

I didn’t choose that top picture of a biological cell just for laffs. It’s the same principle: all those little organelles inside the cell would be pretty useless if you plucked them all out and scattered them around separately. But wrapped up and working together inside a membrane, they add up to more than the sum of the parts. Metaphors: so neat and tidy!

OK, so how do I actually use all this hoo-hah?

First, I divide my day’s work into the Real Stuff and the b.s. What do I mean by Real? Well, we science writers are not in the widget-making business. Regardless of how artsy-fartsy you consider yourself, our work is fundamentally creative — or, if you prefer a less loaded term, highly synthetic. That is, we take raw information from different sources and synthesize something out of it: a blog post, a reported article, a narrative feature, a video, a podcast. Even the most farted-out rewrite of a EurekAlert release still involves some amount of synthesizing, which is different every time we do it. And that is what makes the work require some level of sustained attention.

So I mitosis-ize my day’s Real Work into cells. My default size is 3 hours. For instance, earlier this week one of my tasks was “storyboard a science video.” This is highly synthetic work in any circumstance, but this time was even more so because I had to do it in 3D. (Don’t ask.) I had to figure out how to do the job as I was doing it. That’s the kind of thing that you don’t accomplish in 10 minute scraps between IMs and Twitter, or even 60-minute chunks between writing blog posts. You need to get all those little discrete “organelles” of your attention gathered up and working in concert, which takes time and concentration. For me, 3 hours is just right: enough space to do the attentional “setup” and maintain a steady mental-metabolic rate, but not so much that everything gets too diffuse and weak. In this particular instance, I ended up in a state of flow that made the time blip by like it was nothing.

That’s an extreme case. What happens more often is I define the cell, attempt to get those attentional mitochondria and Golgi apparatuses all squirting and pumping in concert, but inevitably allow a virus or two of interruption inside. But that’s what’s great about a cell: It’s large and robust enough to not die instantly from that kind of thing. In attentional terms, 3 hours is enough space that I can allow a few things I didn’t count on to enter the mix without bringing all the machinery to a halt. And much like a cell’s membrane is its primary immune barrier, defining those attentional borders in the first place — I am going to focus on this problem now, not that, for this long — keeps the interruptions and drift in check.

What if something doesn’t take 3 hours? True, a lot of stuff doesn’t. I don’t devote a whole cell to every task — but I do try to dedicate it to one problem or objective. Producing those storyboards involved dozens of tasks that I kept unconsciously shuffling as I went. And for highly synthetic projects, I find that breaking them down beyond the cell level doesn’t really have practical benefits anyway, because the tasks involved are so organically (zing!) layered and connected and often dynamically interacting… squishy, you might say. Creative work usually isn’t even coherent on a task-by-task scale; the cell is the organizational unit that makes more sense for me.

I sometimes shrink attentional cells into 90 minutes or 2 hours, but I rarely expand them beyond 4 hours unless I find myself in some kind of flow-trance — which almost never happens. (Maybe that would be an attentional plasmodium?) Anyway, 3ish hours is about as long as I can sustain attention in a productive manner on anything. But two or three cells a day accomplish more, for me, than 20 to-dos. And it seems to work out just fine.


About John Pavlus

I'm a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics.
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4 Responses to Bundle your attention and find flow with “cells”

  1. Thanks, John, for expounding on this idea. You’ve really taken it farther than I have. Admittedly I don’t use the strategy nearly as rigorously, mostly because I didn’t have an efficient way of packing the BS stuff (rather I do, but its implementation is pending on some technological plumbing that is taking a century to write). If you have a strategy for that and data on how long it takes you to do it, I would love to see it.

    I should note that I came up with this idea originally to reconcile time estimates, i.e. how long on the meter, with delivery dates on the calendar. For instance, if I estimated that something would take me a day and a half, that would be three cells (given three hours of actually doing stuff and one hour of pad per cell in an eight-hour day), I found this estimate would usually be accurate. But, that did not necessarily mean that I could sequester three contiguous cells and therefore if I got started on a Monday afternoon, there was no guarantee I would have something to ship first thing Wednesday morning (to the chagrin of managers).

    The other thing I wanted to be able to do was dispel the idea that I could have a meeting in the middle of a morning or afternoon and still somehow get my highly-synthetic work done. Likewise if some event torpedoes my concentration I can just push back by one cell, taking advantage of the uniform length to shuffle the deck for an optimal layout. So instead of trying in vain to get back in the groove, my current cell just undergoes apoptosis (to continue with your metaphor ;).

    It’s also worth noting that I intended for this process to be heavily instrumented, as task prioritization is a combinatorial nightmare. The idea is to throw everything into a hopper and connect it by dependency, but past that it doesn’t prescribe a sequence, unlike a Gantt chart. When you think about it, it doesn’t really matter precisely when and in what order a lot of highly-synthetic work needs to get done, as long as it all gets done eventually. That way I wouldn’t be manufacturing any unnecessary expectations on the part of my clients, especially because I tend to flail around a bit with the different facets of what I do just to keep from getting bored. Plus, it isn’t especially considerate or professional to send clients an updated Gantt chart every other day because I switched the sequence of milestones. That and just managing that part carries its own considerable overhead.

    As I mentioned above I also felt it important to decouple the time on the meter from dates on the calendar, because this is another potential liability for overpromising. The sum of the cells would correlate to what the client pays (which could change with new information), and I would plot only the portion of them that related to the next conceptual degree against a calendar, which would of course be dynamic. I would demonstrate progress simply by dividing completed cells against outstanding ones.

    • John Pavlus says:

      Indeed, the billing / tracking aspect of your concept seems very powerful too. All of my work (so far) is project-fee based so that doesn’t apply for me, but I am in the very early stages of trying it out on some things I have in development.

      • I find media projects (writing, visual design, presumably video etc.) to be a mite safer than software as far as the volatility of scope is concerned. Even if you pad the hell out of your estimates it’s still way too easy to blow them, simply because you don’t have enough information up front about what the project entails and what will satisfy the customer. I’ve decided that this is a completely insane way to do bespoke software, so I just don’t do it that way anymore.

        Actually, I don’t do deals based on specific software artifacts anymore because it’s just too risky. If the client appears to have too clear of an idea of what he wants, that’s a huge red flag, because he probably doesn’t. If he actually does and is just looking for a pair of hands then there are people who are set up to do that way more efficiently than me. Besides, my offering hinges on defining the objective, and that doesn’t jive if the objective is already too well-defined. As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I need to buy in just as much as they do in order to produce anything of value. Moreover, I don’t want to find myself on the hook to abet some clown act, the cognitive dissonance would drive me to aneurysm.

  2. Pingback: Wanted: a starting pistol for your brain | Freelancer Hacks

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