Better Design With Deep Thinking

About The Author Eric is the founder of UI UX Training where he leads workshops focused on UX research, design facilitation, and UX copywriting. He has spent the past 18 years …More aboutEric… Task switching is a design killer. Find out why switching and interruptions are even more serious than you think and how biology makes it difficult to resist the temptation to just check your email every few minutes. Learn how to slay the distraction dragon with five practical tips for increasing focus as you tackle challenging design problems. Interruptions, administrative tasks, and too many meetings are among the common complaints voiced by today’s professionals. When was the last time someone complained about a canceled meeting? In other words, everyone understands what hinders productivity, right? Not so fast, says computer scientist Cal Newport. While we all realize that interruptions and fragmented time are troublesome, we fail to recognize: The frequency of interruptions: We convince ourselves that we are focusing on one task at a time, such as a complex interaction design problem. Yet, every ten minutes or so, we check email or answer a text. Yes, we’re performing one task at a time, but the duration of that task is brief. The cost of these interruptions: As Newport explains on a recent episode of Hidden Brain: “Even those very brief checks that switch your context even briefly can have this massive negative impact on your cognitive performance. It’s the switch itself that hurts, not how long you actually switch.” (Emphasis mine) This task switching was the focus of a study by business professor Sophie Leroy. She gave participants a cognitively demanding activity, such as solving a puzzle, and then briefly interrupted them before they completed it. When they returned to the original task, their performance dropped. As Leroy explains, these “results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.” Leroy calls this carryover from one activity to another “attention residue,” meaning that people are still thinking about the previous task even as they turn to the new one. The most effective way to avoid attention residue is to structure your work in a way that reduces interruptions. Such structure requires understanding the difference between deep and shallow work. Deep Work, Shallow Work, And Why They Matter “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” writes Newport in his book Deep Work. This work allows us to absorb, understand, and act on complicated information. Examples including coding, complex project plans, user research, and sophisticated design work. Shallow work refers to tasks that do not require extensive thought and focus such as filling out expense reports and answering emails, texts, and Slack messages. Shallow tasks are necessary. The question is how much time to devote to shallow and deep work and how to structure work in a way that facilitates reflection and concentration. Left: Design is deep work. Right: Filling out a checklist is shallow work. (Image credits: FirmBee | raw pixel) (Large preview) The Solution: Five Practical Tips For Pursuing Deep Work Tip 1: Jump Into Design Work Avoid the temptation to text or check email first thing. Put your phone on do not disturb. Get out your sketch pad or open your design tool and challenge yourself to solve one gnarly design problem by 10:00 am. While this tip sounds like common sense, it’s not quite so straightforward because we are conditioned to respond to signals around us: “External triggers are cues from our environment that tell us what to do…

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