Category Archives: multi-tasking

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

Conscious Computing

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 apneacontinuous 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.

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Filed under attention, breathe, breathing, Conscious Computing, continuous partial attention, distraction, email apnea, engaged, health, multi-tasking, overwhelmed, screen apnea, technology, Uncategorized

This is What the Future Looks Like

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.

The lovely Xeni Jardin, boingboing partner, video host, and executive producer, posted a video that brings the conversation toward the future we will create.

Do you intentionally take time away from the screens in your life?  Please share your story.

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Filed under attention, continuous partial attention, distraction, information overload, multi-tasking, overwhelmed, 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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Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention

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.

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Filed under continuous continuous partial attention, continuous partial attention, multi-tasking, stress