Distractions and Accomplishments

Posted by Albert Gareev on Aug 17, 2016 | Categories: HeuristicsNotesReviews

These are the points I captured while reading 2nd part of “Organizing Our Homes” chapter of the book “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload” by Dr. Daniel J. Levitin. Despite of the name of the chapter, many of these points apply to organization in general, be that at home , at work, or somewhere in between.



People learn and forget. Take charge of your learning by organizing your environment. Set focus on the right things. Avoid distractions and false accomplishments. Learn and make decisions more efficiently.

Key Ideas

  • Human learning is influenced by context
  • People can effectively work (actively keep in mind) with 3 to 5 unrelated subjects
    • Set limit of categories of 4 per level of hierarchy
  • Multitasking is detrimental to cognitive performance
  • Learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain
  • Because the very act of handwriting a note or a letter took many steps and was spread over time, we didn’t go to the trouble unless it was important enough
  • Dangers of emails, texting, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
    • (Mostly) useless but new information that “entertains” some parts of the brain
    • False sense of accomplishment upon reading and replying
    • Loss of focus and productivity
  • Understand cognitive economy


On Learning and Organization

One of my recent learning exercises was with a mobile app. I didn’t spend much time reading user manual. I picked a function, read about its intended purpose, and jumped into playing with it on my phone. That’s typical, right?

Our mind resists abstract information. Without clear purpose and motivation, our Attention Filter doesn’t let the info in, protecting our mind from the useless noise. By providing richer and meaningful context, making it more personal, we greatly enhance our understanding and learning capabilities.

In testing and software development in general, look for scenarios rather than isolated requirements. That might be User Stories defined by a product manager or your very own testing charters.

If you checked out the articles I referenced, you probably noticed that a big User Story is called “epic”, and for the actual implementation it needs to be split to a few simple ones, depicting just one or two aspects. Elizabeth Hendrickson says it from another angle: “good test analysis requires looking at the software from multiple perspectives”.
Both test charters and user stories need to be kept simplistic and categorized in order to handle them effectively.

On Interruptions and Multitasking

Some say that the multi-tasking world we live in is just a new reality. At work, we might be approached by a colleague, receive email from boss, receive a phone call or text message. Then there are Twitter notifications, Facebook comments, WhatsApp, and SnapChat.

I’d categorize all these distractions as avoidable, compulsive, and manageable.

  • Avoidable. When focusing on a task, simply closing or silencing all non-relevant communication channels greatly helps to avoid distractions. All these messages, calls, and texts can wait. Moreover, if you’re not available immediately people will leave emails or follow up only on truly important questions.
    If in your work you need to discuss something or frequently ask questions – respect time of your team mates, book a pairing session instead of constantly distracting them.
    Absolutely a must: turn off all social media notifications. Instead, schedule a time boxed “window” for these low-energy tasks.
  • Compulsive. Sometimes I feel an “urge” to check emails, or my Twitter, or LinkedIn updates. One reason for that is an addiction for the constant flow of “news”. Another is that my mind might become exhausted or bored being on the current task; it needs a break, but switching attention wouldn’t give it a rest. Dan Levitin (the author of the book) , offers an excellent advice: recharge in mind-wandering mode. I tried: it works!
  • Manageable. Yes, you can still be approached with a question. So learn to say “later” and “no”. Instead of handling a continuous stream of questions, offer a walkthrough session. Yes, your own work requires collaboration – so plan and prepare for it to make it productive.

On Sense of Accomplishment

I bet you felt tired and bored following a test case script. Especially if you had a daily assignment to execute 30 test cases. Your goal was about marking them “done”, your motivation was to check the prescribed steps. And there was your focus. Any anomalies in the app seemed as a distraction preventing you from accomplishing of your goal. So why it felt so boring? – Because you were deprived of learning by the very framing of test case execution mission.

As an experiment, with one of my teams I tried simple rephrasing of testing objective. Instead of dull “TC 4.1 Verify Transaction Amount” we used an open statement like “Investigate potential failures with Transaction Amount”. This revealed a number of interesting outcomes.

  • Because instead of following someone’s script testers invented their own path, it felt new and intriguing.
  • Because the mission was to investigate, results of all experiments, whether “passing” or “failing”, felt rewarding – it was all learning.  Finding bugs felt like a bonus.
  • Because the focus was set on finding failures rather than performing scripted steps, testers paid more attention to anomalies and actively tried to trigger them. As a byproduct though we’ve achieved overall better test coverage.

In all, taking charge of one’s own testing led to better motivation and better productivity.

On Cognitive Economy and Decision Making

“Cognitive economy refers to the combined simplicity and relevance of a categorization scheme or knowledge representation. Representational​ assumptions are the built-in biases of a representation that give sensitivity to certain features of the world instead of others.”


Despite of its cumbersome explanation, the term is very useful. It simply means that people tend to think more thoroughly about things important to them and give less thought about less important or unimportant things.
Note how subjective it is:

  • it depends on personal preferences and perceptions;
  • it depends on the situation and context;
  • it depends on one’s abilities.

In an applied sense though cognitive economy is all about decision making. How many parameters you need to know? How much mental modeling of outcomes of your decision you want to make? What are the associated costs and lost opportunities?

For example, let’s say you need to choose between doing this or that test. Performing each test would take about 10 minutes. You may want to spend some time choosing which test to perform. But would you spend 20 minutes thinking about that?

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work by Albert Gareev is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.