Category Archives: attention management

Aspen Ideas Festival: “Information Overload”

Can we be productive in a world full of constant updates? Will we adapt or will we burn out? Linda Stone and William Powers at AIF 2011

Audio link to session is here.

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Filed under attention, attention management, breathe, connection, continuous partial attention, distraction, email apnea, engaged, health, information overload, multi-tasking, overwhelmed, screen apnea

Q & A: Interview with Smart Planet

Here’s a snapshot of the Q & A I did recently with Rachel James of Smart Planet.  For the full post and the comments, please click here.

You’ve held executive roles at Apple and Microsoft. Tell me about how you transitioned into researching our behaviors around technology.

When I was at Microsoft I started looking at what happens to our attention when we’re working with technology. Soon after this, I began researching on my own. One of the questions was: Are people managing their time or their attention? I did a fascinating set of interviews on management of time and attention and how this related to burnout.

How do you differentiate between managing our time and managing our attention?

The people I spoke with who worked in office jobs typically said they managed their time. Many of them had taken time management classes and had things carefully mapped out during the day. This included everything from how many minutes were spent in meetings, on email, on the phone, and with their children. Almost everyone who said they managed their time reported being overwhelmed and feeling burnt out.

When people reported managing their attention, they reported more flow states. It was really interesting. The people who were most likely to say they manage their attention –- artists, CEOs and surgeons — actually described a process of managing a combination of time and attention.

Many executives and CEOs said that if they didn’t manage their attention, they found they would deal with the little things and miss strategic opportunities. They said this was something they had to learn when they moved into the CEO position.

What exactly is a state of flow and why is it important that we find one?

I need to give credit to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for his brilliant work on flow. One of his books is called Finding Flow: Engagement with Everyday Life.  It’s a phenomenal book.

What happens in a state of flow is you are concentrating, but not in a stressed way. It’s the same kind of attention you see in children when they’re engaged in self-directed play. When you watch 3-, 4-, 5- or 6-year-olds building blocks, you see they are fully engaged in the moment.

When you encounter a surgeon in a flow state, they are working right in the moment. They can notice something and change direction. If they simply stuck to the plan, they might begin a procedure and miss a new lesion, for example. In this flow state we are at optimum creativity. We are not bored, but we’re also not anxious.

Let’s talk about your work on the physiology of technology. What makes bringing technology into the broader conversation about wellbeing important?

Here’s what I noticed. As I was researching the differences between managing time and attention, I just so happened to begin taking a breathing class. I was dealing with a respiratory infection and my doctor wanted me to study a technique called Buteyko breathing.

Every morning, before sitting down at my computer, I would do 20 minutes of breathing practice. I noticed on day one, within five minutes of sitting down, I was holding my breath.

At that point I embarked on a study. I observed people using technologies –- a computer, iPhone –- and looked at what was happening to their pulse and heart rate variability and what that indicated about their breathing.

By early 2008 I came up with the phrases “email apnea” and “screen apnea” [which are interchangeable]. We tend to breath-hold or shallow breathe when we sit at a laptop. The computer becomes animated and we become less animated. Our shoulders and chest cave in, we sit slouched for extended periods of times. And it’s impossible to fully breath in that hunched posture.

When you are shallow breathing or breath holding cumulatively day after day, your body goes into a chronic state of fight or flight. You tend to crave carbohydrates and sweet foods because they give you energy to outrun a tiger. Seriously. Our thoughts turn to, “I need to get this done! I can’t get this done! Will I get this done?”

There’s another piece about the physiology of technology that hasn’t been talked about much to date. The effect sitting at computers has on our lymphatic system.

Lymph is pumped through our bodies with the movement of our feet and calf muscles. All this sitting is making it difficult for our bodies to do what it needs to do for natural detoxification.

Where has this research led you?

I started to notice that there was a tremendous amount of discussion around disconnecting. I find something about this conversation really troubling. It sounds like the conversation around dieting that doesn’t work: “I shouldn’t eat the cookie. I shouldn’t eat the cookie. I shouldn’t eat the cookie.”

When we think, “It would be great to eat an apple,” we do much better. Understanding which behaviors we want to build into our lives, rather than which behaviors we want to take away, is much more effective.

So how can we have a conversation about what we connect to? This will get us away from “Don’t touch the computer! Put the phone away! Don’t eat the cookie!” That’s a lot of ‘don’t’ to live with.

What is your take on our obsession with productivity? There are so many programs out there that take a parental approach to our self-micromanaging.  Freedom, Isolator, Stay Focused… You take a much more embodied approach. Where would you like this conversation to land?

The 20th century was all about productivity. Man as machine. Man as faster and more productive. We were so excited by the industrial age. ‘More, faster, more efficiently’ — that was the conversation.

And that was what we measured — on the job and in our own lives. How many things on my list have I done? Our whole conversation was about output and quantity. I believe that the 21st century will be a return to what humans do best –- and this has to do more with engagement and flow, less with output and quantity. We have robots that are going to take over a lot of those ‘more, faster, more efficiently’ jobs.

Now is our opportunity to tap back into what’s unique about the human spirit. Instead of the mantra being “I need to be more productive,” our mantra could be, “I want to be more engaged. I want to connect with what matters and disconnect from the rest.”

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April 30, 2013 · 3:27 pm

A Badass Musician & a Sixth Degree Aikido Black Belt Advise on Email Apnea

Watching Cameron Carpenter play the organ is a transcendant experience.  It’s as if he’s “lit.”  The organ just sits there, and Carpenter’s body exudes a powerful energy.  Most of us, when we interact with digital technologies, “merge” our energies with the device, exhausting ourselves.  Experienced musicians don’t do this. In the evolution of our relationship with digital devices, we have a lot to learn from experienced musicians.

So, recently, when a friend and I had a chance to talk with Cameron about email apnea (also called screen apnea), and conscious computing, and to solicit his advice, we seized at the opportunity.

A little more context first:

“Email apnea,” or “screen apnea”  is temporary cessation of breath when we’re in front of a screen, especially when texting or doing email.  This chronic breath-holding puts us in a state of fight or flight, affecting emotions, physiology, and attention.

Our opportunity is to evolve toward, “Conscious Computing.”   Instead of merging with or into the screen and our digital devices, we stay embodied, breathing, and separate from the devices, in the same way an experienced musician relates to his or her instrument.

Carpenter plays the organ;  a complicated instrument with complicated controls.  He paused for a minute before responding to us, then with complete confidence, advised:

“You’ve gotta dominate the mofo!”

The next day, I related this story to Wendy Palmer, who coaches leaders in conscious embodiment.  Her reaction, “There’s a gentle way to just let it know you’re the boss.”

Take your pick.

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Filed under attention, attention management, breathe, breathing, Conscious Computing, continuous partial attention, distraction, email apnea, engaged, health, information overload, iPhone, overwhelmed, screen apnea, technology

The Hair Dryer that Got Away

Iʼm in NY and staying at a friendʼs apartment. Heʼs not there.

Iʼve had a terrific nightʼs sleep, a hot shower, and now, plan to dry my hair and head over to a conference, where Iʼll be speaking about millenials in the workplace. After my session, several videotaped interviews are planned. Iʼm figuring out what to wear.

I brought several things to choose from so I could feel comfortable in front of the cameras. I even called my friendʼs assistant in advance, “Do I need to bring a hair dryer or is there one in the apartment?” Caught without a hair dryer on a previous visit, I knew Iʼd need a hair dryer for camera-ready hair. She assured me I would find one in the apartment.

I check the hall closet for a hair dryer. Then I check another closet. And another. One more.  OMG, no hair dryer!

I start catastrophizing as I imagine my fine, unruly hair without a dryer. I go through the closets again. Every closet. Panicked, I call my friendʼs office. His assistant, Lesley, is helpful. Five minutes later, thereʼs a knock on the door. Someone in the building has a new hair dryer for me. Relief.

I notice the box is purple and looks familiar. I return to the hall closet. The box matches a box in the closet.

I had been looking for a hair dryer. What good is a box?

Laughing as I dry my hair, I wonder, how much is life like this every day? How many things am I looking for with such vigilance, and such absolute certainty, that, even when theyʼre right in front of me, I fail to notice them.

When I donʼt know, it’s possible to see.

I was so struck by this example of what is called inattentional blindness.  We fail to notice things in plain sight.  The Chabris and Simons website includes some great video demos; you can see how easy it is to miss what’s right in front of you.

One of my favorite books on this topic is Sleights of Mind:  What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions.

For many of us, our evolving relationship with technology in a 24/7, mobile, always-connected world, traps us in a hyper-focus on the screen, and a blindness to the rich world around us.

Do you have a story about your own inattentional blindness?  Feel free to share it below.

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Filed under attention, attention management, continuous partial attention, distraction, information overload, technology

Perpetual Inattentional Blindness

I first saw The Invisible Gorilla video in 1980-something (’87? 88?).  Alan Kay showed it to a crowd of Apple employees in a jam-packed auditorium, just prior to a talk by Tim Gallwey.

Experiencing the video was a knock on the side of the head.  Being chosen by Tim Gallwey to play catch with him on stage, in front of my colleagues, was utterly terrifying.  Then, there it was.  When he tossed the ball, asking me to notice the shape of the holes, I, a legally blind without glasses human, easily caught the ball.   Our game of catch was flowing perfectly, until my mind interrupted with an internal broadcast:  “Linda, you are catching a ball onstage, in front of 500 people.”  I dropped the ball.

My cognitive science background sent me to the literature, and, one of my favorite resources today, in the study of attention, is the work of Chabris and Simons, on “selective attention,” or, “inattentional blindness.”  Scholarpedia defines this as the failure to notice a fully-visible, but unexpected object because attention is engaged on another task, event, or object.

Then it hit me.  Our relationships with our SmartPhones, and this wicked habit that many of us have, of walking or driving while texting or talking, holds us in a state of perpetual inattentional blindness.

On a trip to New York City in fall, 2010, the real cost of perpetual inattentional blindness came through loud and clear.

Diary, September 2010

I’m in NY and staying at a friend’s apartment.  He’s not there. I’ve had a terrific night’s sleep, a hot shower, and now, plan to dry my hair and head over to a conference, where I’ll be speaking about millenials in the workplace.

After my session, several videotaped interviews are planned.  I’m figuring out what to wear. I brought several things to choose from so I could feel comfortable in front of the cameras.  I even called my friend’s assistant in advance, “Do I need to bring a hair dryer or is there one in the apartment?”  Caught without a hair dryer on a previous visit, I knew I’d need a hair dryer for camera-ready hair.  She assured me I would find one in the apartment.

I check the hall closet for a hair dryer.  Then I check another closet.  And another.  One more.  OMG, no hair dryer!  I start catastrophizing as I imagine my fine, unruly hair without a dryer.  I go through the closets again.  Every closet.  Panicked, I call my friend’s office.  His assistant, Lesley, is helpful.

Five minutes later, there’s a knock on the door.  Someone in the building has a new hair dryer for me.  Relief. I notice the box is purple and looks familiar.  I return to the hall closet.  The box matches a box in the closet. I had been looking for a hair dryer.  What good is a box?

Laughing as I dry my hair, I wonder, how much is life like this every day?  How many things am I looking for with such vigilance, and such absolute certainty, that, even when they’re right in front of me, I fail to notice them. What does happiness look like?  What does love look like?  When I have “I don’t know,” mind, anything is possible.

Can you recall moments of inattentional blindness? How do you cultivate an open state?

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Filed under attention, attention management, distraction, multi-tasking, technology

The Look & Feel of Conscious Computing

With a musical instrument, it’s awkward at first.  All thumbs.  Uncomfortable.   Noise.  With practice, the musician becomes self-contained vs. consumed by the instrument; co-creating music.  So it will be with personal technology.  Now, a prosthetic of mind, it will become a prosthetic of being.  A violinist with a violin.  Us with our gadgets, embodied, attending as we choose.

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Filed under attention, attention management, Conscious Computing, engaged

Dee Hock’s 1996 Quote…

Those who have heard me speak know that I often quote Dee Hock, the Founder of Visa, and one of the great business innovators of our time.

I use his quote below to describe how technology is evolving us, how we’re evolving technology and how both are evolving culture.

  • Noise becomes data when it has a cognitive pattern.
  • Data becomes information when assembled into a coherent whole, which can be related to other information.
  • Information becomes knowledge when integrated with other information in a form useful for making decisions and determining actions.
  • Knowledge becomes understanding when related to other knowledge in a manner useful in anticipating, judging and acting.
  • Understanding becomes wisdom when informed by purpose, ethics, principles, memory and projection.

Further, I map this evolution to a timeline:

1945-1965

Noise to Data

1965-1985

Data to Information

1985-2005

Information to Knowledge

2005-2025

Knowledge to Understanding

2025-2045

Understanding to Wisdom

Today, we are Knowledge Workers evolving into Understanding Workers.  Understanding Workers use technology to anticipate, judge and act.  Think about it.  This is what we’re doing with FitBit, Quantified Self, 23andMe.com, Facebook, and so many other technologies of this era.

As we move into an Era of Conscious Computing, we’ll also be moving deeper into Understanding and closer toward Wisdom.

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Filed under attention, attention management, dominant mass consciousness attention paradigm, engaged, information overload, innovation, O'Reilly Radar, technology, trends