Stressful Attention Interruption and the Cure

I have written in the past that stress is often the result of feeling that you are out of control, and that the key to reduction of stress is to take back control, but there is a caveat. It is a ‘yes but’ that applies more to policing than it does to many other workplaces short of the battlefield, although I’m not so pompous to believe there aren’t workplaces that have similar levels of whirlwind activity.

The caveat is expressed well by Stephen Covey, who wrote about the ‘promise’ of many time management writers. He suggested that

Basing our happiness on our ability to control everything is futile.

He wrote this about time management in general, but it is so much more accurate when applied to our job, simply because we can’t even control 20% of what we do. The moment we get a handle on something is the moment something else happens – you’re dealing with a RTC and the fight starts, or taking a statement when the fight starts, or minding your own business when – you know. All of that notwithstanding those times what we are doing changes in nature – for example when the statement you are taking takes a turn you weren’t expecting. Or when a suspect suddenly confesses after you’ve spent an hour planning your detailed approach to their interview. Uncommon, I know, but when it happened to me in my younger service, I was so taken aback that I suddenly forgot how to ask questions!

Which means that when you are able to do something that is completely within your sphere of influence you should recognise that, and enjoy it to the full.

And it also means that you can reduce your personal stress levels by acknowledging and accepting that your job is one where interruptions are what you do.

Acceptance is the mindset, but the skillset for dealing with sudden and stressful change is to have a system for managing your attention so that the interruption itself is brought under control.

The simplest way to do that (when possible) is to note the interruption, clarify what it means, and then give it no more than the appropriate level of attention. If it is a fight, that means deal with it now and give it all of your attention. If it is a request for action to be taken later, make a note to attend to it later, even if ‘later’ means taking time to plan that action.

There is a tendency – me too – to allocate too much attention to an interruption. For example, you’re ‘in’ something you planned to do, and the phone rings. You answer it (even though you have an answerphone facility to do it for you), and now your attention is off Job 1, and into whatever the call means. And even when the call is finished you will tend to have some, if not all of your attention ‘there’ instead of where you were before.

The best advice I can give, after telling you not to answer the phone in the first place (responsibilities allowing) is to note the call, put it onto a list for attention later, and then leave it on that list while your attention returns to Job 1. That may sound as though it won’t actually work, but if the note you make is sufficiently comprehensive, you know you can rely on it to remind you of what you need to do in its regard when you need to do it. And your brain is happy in that knowledge and allows you to move on. It’s when you don’t write it down and allow it to wait that your brain keeps nagging at you to give it attention.

Tell me: when your car passes an MOT or has a service, does it drive better even when nothing meaningful was actually done to it? Of course it does, and that is not a physical reality, but a psychological reality. Your brain knows that nothing is likely to go wrong with the car for at least a little while, so doesn’t remind you to take maintenance action. It’s filed the work as ‘done’ and ‘successful’, until you hear the next funny noise. Then, if you don’t know what it is, you get stressed until you identify the cause, the likely effect, and arrange to get it fixed. And again, once fixed – stress free motoring.

Life is the same – if you are stressed, you need to identify the problem, arrange its solution and then get it done.


Published by policetimemanagement

30 year policing veteran and time management authority. Now I've combined the two.

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