Our Powerful and Fragile Attention

What if I told you that the way we are talking about attention is part of the problem today? Our conversation about distraction, multi-tasking, and the stern command to focus actually creates a level of stress, anxiety, and shame.

Headlines read: Dangers of Digital Distraction! Taming the Distraction Monster! Time to Unplug! This conversation stresses us in a way similar to the techniques magicians and con artists use to create misdirection. As we consider how distracted we are, we shame ourselves with messages like: “I should unplug!” “I have too much to do!” “I’m distracted!” “I have to focus!”

All of these thoughts, all of this stress, zaps our attention bandwidth. We twist in the winds of our own misdirection. Isn’t it ironic that even in our efforts to manage our attention effectively, we are, instead, contributing to stress and misdirection!

If we don’t consciously choose where we want to direct our attention, there will always be something in our path tomisdirect it. From the news, to pickpockets, to Facebook — every choice we don’t make is made for us.

If we want to harness the superpower that is our attention, instead of talking about distraction and a need to unplug and disconnect, let’s talk about what it is we choose to connect to. As we reach for what we prefer, we can stop stressing and shaming ourselves regarding what it is we’re getting wrong.

Click here to read the whole post on the HuffingtonPost

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The Time We Have (in Jelly Beans)

http://ashow.zefrank.com/episodes/128

My friend’s 16 year old son stopped playing video games. Cold turkey. From hours a day in front of the screen one day to those same hours spent with friends ever after.

“Why did you stop?” his mother asked.

“Jelly Beans. My life in jelly beans.”

Thanks to Ze Frank for creating this powerful video!

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January 25, 2014 · 7:30 am

Choreograph Lively Dinner Conversation

I started hosting dinner parties when I was 12.  I enjoyed cooking and especially loved great conversation.  Over the years, I started to notice that even with fourteen fascinating people at the table, sometimes the conversation was like fireworks and sometimes it fell flat.

I wanted to figure out an algorithm for dinner party seating.  Was this magic?  Or was there a formula?  I was certain there was a way to ensure great conversation.

I think of dinner table conversation as “pinball.”  If the ball stalls or goes down the drain, the game loses energy.  If an energetic conversation is happening between two people sitting across from each other, the ends of the table “die.”

It’s an art!  It’s a science!  It’s fun.  Please try it out and let me know how it works for you!

Basic Rules

»Eight to 14 people per table works best.

»Never seat friends next to one another.

»Ignore the old etiquette of alternating males and females.

Strategy

»Sort place cards into four “energy density” piles: H (high), M (medium), L (low), and ? (wild card).

»Assign the H guests first. Seat them diagonally from one another. Never seat H people directly across from each other.

»If you have guests with strong opposing views, seat them diagonally from each other, too.

»Seat the L people next to the H people. When conversation bounces around the table, The Ls will be more inclined to participate because of their proximity to an H.

»Scatter M and ? guests among the remaining open seats.

The piece below was first published by Wired in August of 2006

Scroll down on this page to see the original.

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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

The Essential Self: Health Beyond the Numbers

“What are you tracking?” This is the conversation at Quantified Self (QS) meetups. The Quantified Self movement celebrates “self-knowledge through numbers.” In our current love affair with QS, we tend to focus on data and the mind. Technology helps manage and mediate that relationship. The body is in there somewhere, too, as a sort of “slave” to the mind and the technology.

In our relationship with technology, we easily fall out of touch with our bodies. We know how many screen hours we’ve logged, but we are less likely to be able to answer the question: “How do you feel?”

The full post is here, and suggests a new movement, alongside the Quantified Self movement.  This new movement is called:  The Essential Self.

What might the tools and technologies of this new movement look and feel like?

Passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies are emerging as tools to help support our Essential Self. Some of these technologies work with light, music, or vibration to support “flow-like” states.  We can use these technologies as “prosthetics for feeling” — using them is about experiencing versus tracking. Some technologies support more optimal breathing practices. Essential Self technologies might connect us more directly to our limbic system, bypassing the “thinking mind,” to support our Essential Self.

When data and tracking take center stage, as is the case with most Quantified Self technologies, the thinking mind is in charge. And, as a friend of mine says, “I used to think my mind was the best part of me. Then I realized what was telling me that.”


Here are a few examples of outstanding Essential Self technologies; please share your examples and experiences in the comments:

  • JustGetFlux.com
    More than eight million people have downloaded f.lux. Once downloaded, f.lux matches the light from the computer display to the time of day: warm at night and like sunlight during the day. The body’s circadian system is sensitive to blue light, and f.lux removes most of this stimulating light just before you go to bed. These light shifts are more in keeping with your circadian rhythms and might contribute to better sleep and greater ease in working in front of the screen. This is easy to download, and once installed, requires no further action from you — it manages the display light passively, ambiently, and non-invasively.
  • Focusatwill.com
    When neuroscience, music, and technology come together brilliantly, focusatwill.com is the result. Many of us enjoy listening to music while we work. The folks at focusatwill.com understand which music best supports sustained, engaged attention, and have curated a music library that can increase attention span up to 400% according to their website.  The selections draw from core neuroscience insights to subtly and periodically change the music so your brain remains in a “zone” of focused attention without being distracted. “Attention amplifying” music soothes and supports sustained periods of relaxed focus. I’m addicted.
  • Just for fun, use a Heartmath EmWave2 to track the state of your Autonomic Nervous System while you’re listening to one of the focusatwill.com music channels.

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From the Atlantic: Interview with James Fallows

Jim Fallows asked me to talk with him about the future of attention.  I wanted to share the links for the short version that appeared in the magazine, and the longer version that appeared online.

The short version, followed by a link:

From the time we’re born, we’re learning and modeling a variety of attention and communication strategies. For example, one parent might put one toy after another in front of the baby until the baby stops crying. Another parent might work with the baby to demonstrate a new way to play with the same toy. These are very different strategies, and they set up a very different way of relating to the world for those children. Adults model attention and communication strategies, and children imitate. In some cases, through sports or crafts or performing arts, children are taught attention strategies. Some of the training might involve managing the breath and emotions—bringing one’s body and mind to the same place at the same time.

Read more here…

Here’s an excerpt from the full interview, which Jim posted on his blog:

We learn by imitation, from the very start. That’s how we’re wired. Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, professors at the University of Washington I-LABS, show videos of babies at 42 minutes old, imitating adults. The adult sticks his tongue out. The baby sticks his tongue out, mirroring the adult’s behavior. Children are also cued by where a parent focuses attention. The child’s gaze follows the mother’s gaze. Not long ago, I had brunch with friends who are doctors, and both of them were on call. They were constantly pulling out their smartphones. The focus of their 1-year-old turned to the smartphone: Mommy’s got it, Daddy’s got it. I want it.

We may think that kids have a natural fascination with phones. Really, children have a fascination with what-ever Mom and Dad find fascinating. If they are fascinated by the flowers coming up in the yard, that’s what the children are going to find fascinating. And if Mom and Dad can’t put down the device with the screen, the child is going to think, That’s where it’s all at, that’s where I need to be! I interviewed kids between the ages of 7 and 12 about this. They said things like “My mom should make eye contact with me when she talks to me” and “I used to watch TV with my dad, but now he has his iPad, and I watch by myself.”

Kids learn empathy in part through eye contact and gaze. If kids are learning empathy through eye contact, and our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy.

Read more here…

Both in the interview with Jim and later in a post for the Atlantic website, I talked about how we think about and measure productivity today:  more work, faster pace, more efficiently, and how we might rethink productivity and how we measure it going forward.

Note that I’m not arguing against being productive.  I’m asking that we re-consider how we evaluate productivity.  Is it the number of emails we send and receive?  The number of hours a child spends on homework?  Read the excerpt and click on the link below.  Please consider sharing your experience and thinking on this.

An unintended and tragic consequence of our metrics for schools is that what we measure causes us to remove self-directed play from the school day. Children’s lives are completely programmed, filled with homework, lessons, and other activities.. There is less and less space for the kind of self-directed play that can be a fantastically fertile way for us to develop resilience and a broad set of attention strategies, not to mention a sense of who we are, and what questions captivate us. We have narrowed ourselves in service to the gods of productivity, a type of productivity that is about output and not about results.

Read more here…

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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