Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Attention, Intelligence, Creativity and Flow

Most coders are aware of the importance of pure uninterrupted concentration. Creative work of any kind requires focuses attention. The state of flow happens when the spotlight of attention is completely focused on an activity. A piece by Jonah Lehrer, Attention and Intelligence, reminded me of that happy bubble so easily popped by meetings, spouses and pointy-haired bosses. He writes, "Our mind has strict cognitive limitations - selective attention helps us compensate."

Herbert Simon said, "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

William James famously wrote, "Everyone knows what attention is... It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others."

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi tells us, "Flow describes a state of experience that is engrossing, intrinsically rewarding and outside the parameters of worry and boredom." The components of Flow are:

  • Clear goals.
  • Attention is focused on a limited stimulus field. There is full concentration, complete involvement. Focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself.
  • A loss of self-consciousness, action and awareness merge.
  • Immediate feedback; behavior can be adjusted as needed.
  • Balance between ability and challenge.
  • A sense of control and serenity; freedom from worry about failure.
  • Timelessness; thoroughly focused on the present.
  • Intrinsic motivation; the experience becomes its own reward, resulting in effortlessness of action.

Not entirely unrelated is Daniel Pink's analysis of motivation as:

  • Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives
  • Mastery: The desire to get better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

From Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnuget:

Most of my adult life has been spent in bringing to some kind of order sheets of paper eight and a half inches wide and eleven inches long. This severely limited activity has allowed me to ignore many a storm. It has also caused many of the worst storms I ignored. My mates have often been angered by how much attention I pay to paper and how little attention I pay to them.
I can only reply that the secret to success in every human endeavor is total concentration. Ask any great athlete.
To put it another way: Sometimes I don't consider myself very good at life, so I hide in my profession.
I know what Delilah really did to Samson to make him as weak as a baby. She didn't have to cut his hair off. All she had to do was break his concentration.

All this is a long way of saying multitasking sucks, or as someone with a fistful of yen might say, "What was that? This is not a charade. We need total concentration."

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