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
Category Archives: continuous partial attention
Conscious Computing Allows Technology to Become a Prosthetic for Engaging with Our Full Potential
Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds.
In our current relationship with technology, we bring our bodies, but our minds rule.
“Don’t stop now, you’re on a roll. Yes, pick up that phone call, you can still answer these six emails. Watch the Twitter stream while working on PowerPoint? Why not?” Our minds push, demand, coax, and cajole. “No break yet, we’re not done. No dinner until this draft is done.”
Our tyrannical minds conspire with enabling technologies and our bodies do their best to hang on for the wild ride.
Glenn Fleishman posted on software that disables bits of the computer to make us more productive and to minimize distractions. Programs like Freedom, Isolator, RescueTime, LeechBlock, Turn Off the Lights and others were mentioned — all tools that block distractions. This software category is called: Internet Blocking Productivity Software. Users can choose to disable Internet access and/or local network access. Users claim that software like Freedom makes them more productive by blocking tempting distractions.
I’m not opposed to using technologies to support us in reclaiming our attention. But I prefer passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies that address our bodymind, over parental ones.
Consider the Toyota Prius. The Prius doesn’t stop in the middle of a highway and say, “Listen to me, Mr. Irresponsible Driver, you’re using too much gas and this car isn’t going to move another inch until you commit to fix that.” Instead, a display engages us in a playful way and our body implicitly learns to shift to use less gas.
Glenn was kind enough to call me for a comment as he prepared his post. We talked about email apnea, continuous partial attention, and how, while software that locks out distractions is a great first step, our ultimate opportunity is to evolve our relationship with personal technologies.
With technologies like Freedom, we take away, from our mind, the role of tyrant, and re-assign that role to the technology. The technology then dictates to the mind. The mind then dictates to the body. Meanwhile, the body that senses and feels, that turns out to offer more wisdom than the finest mind could even imagine, is ignored.
There are techniques and technologies that actually tune us in to our bodies, and our nervous systems. These technologies let us know when we’re stressed, or when we’re engaged. One of these technologies, from Heartmath, has been particularly helpful to me. A clip goes on the earlobe, and is connected to a small, lightweight box, that can sit next to the computer. There are lights on the box that indicate the state of the nervous system. One of these products, the emWave2, can be used while doing work on the computer (in other contexts as well). Heartmath also offer software games that work with the emWave2. The 5-10 minute games involve actions that are totally controlled by the state of your nervous system.
At the heart of compromised attention is compromised breathing. Breathing, attention, and emotion, are commutative. Athletes, dancers, and musicians are among those who don’t have email apnea. Optimal breathing contributes to regulating our autonomic nervous system and it’s in this regulated state that our cognition and memory, social and emotional intelligence, and even innovative thinking can be fueled.
Scientists, like Antonio Damasio, Daniel Siegel, and Daniel Goleman, have shown us that aspects of our intelligence come from sensing and feeling and that our bodies offer a kind of wisdom.
Thirty years ago, personal computing technologies created a revolution in personal productivity, supporting a value on self-expression, output and efficiency. The personal communications technology era that followed the era of personal productivity amplified accessibility and responsiveness. Personal technologies have served us well as prosthetics for the mind, in service of thinking and doing.
Our focus has been on technologies as prosthetics for the mind, and human-as-machine style productivity. This has led to burn-out, poor health, poor sleep, and what I call email apnea or screen apnea. We wonder where our attention has gone. Turns out, it’s right where we left it — with our ability to breathe fully.
We can use personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings, to enhance our lives. I call this Conscious Computing.
We can use technology to help enable Conscious Computing, or we can find it on our own, through attending to how we feel. For advice from a musician on how to do Conscious Computing, I interviewed the organist, Cameron Carpenter.
Conscious Computing with the help of passive, ambient, non-invasive Heart Rate Variability (HRV) technology is poised to take off over the next few years. It has the potential to help all of us learn the skills that musicians, athletes and dancers have, that immunizes them from email apnea.
With a musical instrument, it’s awkward at first. All thumbs. Uncomfortable. We don’t know how to sit, stand or breathe. With practice, a musician becomes self-contained versus merged with the instrument. 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. Self-contained. Present.
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.
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.
These days, the discussions about information overload are contributing to the overload! It’s refreshing to the tenth power when there’s a glimpse of what IS preferred vs. where we’re stuck.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been noticing that about 1/3 of people walking, crossing streets, or standing on the sidewalk, are ON their cell phones. In most cases, they are not just talking; they are texting or emailing — attention fully focused on the little screen in front of them. Tsunami warning? They’d miss it.
With an iPod, at least as the person listens, they visually attend to where they’re going. For those walking while texting or sending an email, attention to the world outside of the screen is absent. The primary intimacy is with the device and it’s possibilities.
Do you intentionally take time away from the screens in your life? Please share your story.
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.
Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds. Our opportunity is to create personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings. Conscious computing is post-productivity, post-communication era computing. Personal technologies that enhance our lives. Personal technologies that are prosthetics of our full human potential.
Recently, Nicholas Carr wrote a piece: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.
Can we really know that’s true? It’s the web? Is this a declaration of war on technology? After all, it’s shattering focus and rewiring our brains, according to Carr.
My latest Huffington Post piece, Are We at War with Technology, considers the relationship between the WHAT (technology), the HOW (how we’re using it) and the human (us).
Distraction and procrastination come in a variety of flavors. I’ve noticed that when I’m “distracted,” and I walk over and stare out the window, it’s a very different experience than when I feed the distraction by cramming in a few emails or make a phone call.
How often do you let your mind wander? Are you able to give up the list in your head when you’re cooking or in the shower or taking a walk? It’s no accident that new ideas pop into our heads when we least expect it. In our enthusiasm to be productive, we forget to give our mind/body moments to be “receptive” — that is, open to daydreaming, open to letting our minds wander.
People often say we’re multi-tasking ourselves to death. What is it we’re doing and why has this become a passionate conversation?
I call what we’re doing today continuous partial attention, or cpa, for short. In 1997, I created this meme to differentiate between simple and complex multi-tasking. The motivations and the effects of simple vs. complex multi-tasking appeared to be very different to me. I wanted a new name to describe what I was seeing in order to be very clear that when my mom was multi-tasking, she was doing something very different from what I found myself doing.
The meme, continuous partial attention, not only resonated with my colleagues in high tech and others outside of that field, it also ultimately led me into years of research – on individual and mass consciousness patterns of attention, trends, and related health and technology topics.
By now, I’ve developed what I’m calling ZG Maps* and a process for using it called ZG Mapping. ZG Maps spans from 1945 and projects out toward 2025. Some of the presentations I give at conferences and to corporations pull information from ZG Maps. For corporate presentations, I often map the company’s history to the ZG Maps, illustrating when and how the company was in and out of sync with what I’ve come to call, the dominant mass consciousness attention paradigm.
In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen outlines how successful companies can miss out on important disruptive technologies by focusing solely on iterating on sustaining technologies. I admire Christensen’s work.
ZG Mapping comes at these issues from another point of view. My favorite Alan Kay quote is: “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” Thus, coming at innovation from a variety of points of view can add IQ points!
With regard to innovation, in addition to keeping Christensen’s points in mind, I think it’s crucial for companies to also consider:
- How their products, services, marketing, recruiting and management efforts can resonate with cultural shifts. Attention, expressed collectively, can define a community, a society, a business, a corporate culture or a set of products and services. Mass consciousness attention patterns are at the heart of the ZG Maps. A set of values, orientations, and trends emerge from understanding how past patterns flow into the present patterns, and then, into likely future patterns.
- How the youngest generation entering the work force can play a significant role in a company’s future success. In many companies, the newest and youngest hires become trapped at the bottom of a steep management chain, engaged in menial work, with little opportunity to effectively offer one of their greatest gifts: their knowing and sensibility of the incoming dominant mass consciousness attention paradigm.
These and other topics will be covered in future posts.
*ZG Maps: ZG for Zeitgeist and Maps or Mapping for orientation or orienting
In early 2007, at the suggestion of my M.D., I took a course in Buteyko breathing and incorporated it into my morning routine. I would get up, take a walk, do twenty minutes of Buteyko, then, sit down at my computer to work.
Day one: Within the first few minutes of sitting down at my computer, I noticed I was holding my breath – a huge contrast to the breathing exercises I was doing only moments before.
Day two: Within the first few minutes of sitting down at my computer, I noticed I was holding my breath.
Day three: This isn’t an anomaly, it’s a habit! Does everyone do this?!
I spent the next 6-7 months observing and interviewing over 200 people. I watched and spoke with people in their offices, in cafes, in their homes, and, roughly 80% of this sample appeared to have what I called, email apnea. I interviewed a variety of healthcare practitioners and researchers on the physiological impacts of breath holding. I’m grateful to these professionals for answering my questions, referring me to other professionals, and referring me to relevant research.
Since posting the original pieces on email apnea, the Steelcase Walkstation has come on the market. There is some evidence that we’re likely to have better posture at a standing or walking workstation.
What I call continuous partial attention is referred to as complex multi-tasking in cognitive science. Most of us don’t walk around distinguishing between simple and complex multi-tasking when we talk about our day: “I multi-tasked all afternoon and I’m exhausted.” “Yes, I multi-task when I drive.” “A good chef has to multi-task.”
Were those examples of simple or complex multi-tasking? There’s no way to know. The differences between simple and complex multi-tasking are profound. So, when I noticed that complex multi-tasking was increasingly pervasive in our culture, I took the liberty of giving it a new name: continuous partial attention. WordSpy, a fun site that tracks new words and phrases, recognizes cpa, and so does Wikipedia.
Continuous partial attention and multi-tasking are two different attention strategies, motivated by different impulses. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. Each activity has the same priority – we eat lunch AND file papers. We stir the soup AND talk on the phone. With simple multi-tasking, one or more activities is somewhat automatic or routine, like eating lunch or stirring soup. That activity is then paired with another activity that is automatic, or with an activity that requires cognition, like writing an email or talking on the phone. At the core of simple multi-tasking is a desire to be more productive. We multi-task to CREATE more opportunity for ourselves –time to DO more and time to RELAX more.
An image, that comes to mind for me here, is the contrast between the organization man (Whyte, 1956): a dutiful employee who ate lunch in a cafeteria or restaurant and certainly not at his desk; and the entrepreneur of the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, who ate lunch at his/her desk or while filing papers, in order to get more done in a day.
Simple multi-tasking made it possible to cram more into our workday, and often, helped create a little more free time for drinks with friends, or time with family, or a favorite television show.
In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything. We’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition. We’re talking on the phone and driving. We’re writing an email and participating in a conference call. We’re carrying on a conversation at dinner and texting under the table on the Blackberry or iPhone.
Continuous partial attention also describes a state in which attention is on a priority or primary task, while, at the same time, scanning for other people, activities, or opportunities, and replacing the primary task with something that seems, in this next moment, more important. When we do this, we may have the feeling that our brains process multiple activities in parallel. Researchers say that while we can rapidly shift between activities, our brains process serially.
Continuous partial attention involves a kind of vigilance that is not characteristic of multi-tasking. With cpa, we feel most alive when we’re connected, plugged in, and in the know. We constantly SCAN for opportunities – activities or people – in any given moment. With every opportunity we ask, “What can I gain here?”
Why care about the difference between multi-tasking and cpa?
Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert. We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves. We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities. If we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus. What’s ringing? Who is it? How many emails? What’s on my list? What time is it in Bangalore?
In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in. This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER? How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.
Over the last twenty years, we have become expert at continuous partial attention and we have pushed ourselves to an extreme that I call, continuous continuous partial attention. There are times when cpa is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing; and, in small doses, continuous partial attention serves us well. There are times when cpa and ccpa compromises us.
The “shadow side” of cpa is over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment. The latest, greatest powerful technologies are now contributing to our feeling increasingly powerless. Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.
And that’s not all. We have more attention-related and stress-related diseases than ever before. Continuous continuous partial attention and the fight or flight response associated with it, can set off a cascade of stress hormones, starting with norepinephrin and its companion, cortisol. As a hormone, cortisol is a universal donor. It can attach to any receptor site. As a result, dopamine and seratonin –the hormones that help us feel calm and happy – have nowhere to go because cortisol has taken up the available spaces. The abundance of cortisol in our systems has contributed to our turning to pharmaceuticals to calm us down and help us sleep. Read about email apnea to understand how our relationship with screen-based activities plays a role in this fight or flight response.
Posts on this site cover attention (yours, mine, ours), technology, health and trends (ZG Mapping – ZG for Zeitgeist and Mapping for Orienting).
Readers of my work on Radar and on The Huffington Post may be familiar with some of the themes that I’ll tackle in the first few posts on this site. Your comments, questions, quotes, and references are always appreciated — here, on Radar.Oreilly.com and huffingtonpost.com.
Thank you in advance for your interest in my work.
To those who have followed my work for a while, my apologies that it’s taken so long to update this site. Matt Mullenweg, thank you for your encouragement to go with WordPress. Lisa Gold, thank you for supporting my research efforts over the last decade, and for helping me get this off the ground.
Thank you for exploring the site. There’s an area called “Talk to Me About…” and I’d love for it to be populated with relevant stories and good questions related to the topics indicated.