Class reflection: Attention & Distraction

Posted: October 14, 2013 in Class notes, Conscious computing
Tags: , ,

In tonight’s class, I tried to weave a discussion of the issues at hand with some training on critical thinking about claims and evidence and writing literature reviews.

We worked in a problem-solution format. We identified the problem discussed in the readings and the claims to support it. We then evaluated the evidence a bit. Note that an argument is only as strong as its evidence. And the evidence, if it’s a research study, is only as good as its methods.

I then talked about the Introduction and the Literature Review. Here are some older slides that capture some of the same thoughts:

You can also see these posts where I document my experience and the emotional work it took to write a literature review: part 1, part 2.

In the last part of class, which I wish lasted longer, we talked about solutions to the issues related to distraction and too many demands on our attention.

Most of the solutions students volunteered were about reducing the number of available stimuli in order to limit the demands on bottom-up attention. That’s a good, but not sufficient, strategy.

In addition, it is useful to train top-down attention and to strengthen the “muscle” that controls it volitionally. I showed you a very simple exercise of observing the attention and brining it back to one focal point (in this case, the breath). I would also like to share with you what I have learned, through mindful observation, that works for me:

  • Not checking email and social media first thing in the day. My days are better when I give myself a bit of quiet time first thing in the morning.
  • Avoiding switch-tasking. In his book, Alex SK Pang differentiates between the multitasking we do when working on one goal (e.g. writing a research paper) and the switch-tasking we do when we perform tasks related to various goals. My day works better if I focus on one thing at a time, and do not keep email open all the time.
  • Taking breaks. I need to take brief breaks in between tasks where I do nothing. I might take a few deep breaths, or check in to see how I feel or what my body feels like. Just a quiet moment. I sometimes use a timer such as ProtectYourVision and when I do, I get less tired during the day and I can sustain performance for longer periods of time.
  • If my mind is busy with all sorts of thoughts that keep me from understanding what I read, I sometimes just jot them down on a piece of paper. This way, I don’t have to keep worrying about forgetting to buy cat food. I offload it on a piece of paper I can revisit later.
  • I try to think twice before giving in to the compulsion to check my email or Twitter.
  • I also practice yoga and try to meditate. I have learned a lot about myself and about self-observation that way.

Most days, it is hard to keep to conscious computing. Stress takes over, and I don’t allow myself a break, or my mind races from thing to think and I try to get multiple things done and task-switch quickly. Those days burn me out and deplete me. I have noticed that they are really not healthy and if I string too many of these days together my mind gets in really bad shape – a state of exhaustion and depletion that resembles clinical depression. One of the many reasons I love teaching is that for the time I am in class, there is nowhere else I need to be and nothing else to think about. For me, that’s a very restorative experience.

Just like attention wanders away and needs to be gently be brought back to a focal point, I sometimes drift away from these practices that are good for me, get in some unpleasant state, then navigate my way back to them. It’s a journey, but one worth attempting!

What works for you? What’s your experience like? Also, Pang suggests taking a “digital Sabbath” once a week. Would you be interested in trying this together one Saturday?

  1. archntech says:

    The last part of class yesterday was very interesting. I’ve done yoga and meditation before, and it felt good – as is getting back in charge of our mind. But like attetion, little by little that control got lost along the way… and we don’t realize it until we “step outside” of the situation. I did step outside yesterday and did not like what I’ve seen.
    Time to get back in charge!
    I’m in for “digital Sabbath”! God help me I will survive!!
    Other than that I find listening to music on the way back home really mind soothing. When I’m walking and listening I forget the urgencies and problems to focus on the lightning of the buildings at night (I can’t completely let go of being a construction lover…) and also to contemplate the sky (a hobby of mine which I find intriguing here, since the stars are not the same as those in the south…). I do have an occasional Instagram urge when I see something nice, but normally that goes away in a couple of seconds, specially if I’m listening to good music 🙂

  2. Eli Allameh says:

    I’m working on my social media addiction and my concentration. For the concentration since last week I started to go to a yoga class! I really liked yoga! I think it will help me a lot. And the first step toward doing something for my addiction is to not look at my cell phone while I’m driving!

    • Mihaela says:

      What yoga class did you go to? Where?

      • Eli Allameh says:

        Group X yoga class at the COREC. I think it’s good for me as a beginner. I have a long way to be as good as you in yoga!

        • Mihaela says:

          It’s really not about YOU being good or bad… it’s about the class being good or bad… Did they teach you how to breathe? Did they move slowly and with purpose? Did you feel relaxed and happy at the end? Did it feel like physical exercise or something more spiritual?

          • Eli Allameh says:

            They don’t teach us how to breath, but they try to make it spirtual! I’ve never tried a yoga class before this, so I can’t tell if it’s a good class or not. Maybe after this semester I will go to a better one 😉

  3. annerstark says:

    I can physically tell when I have been over doing social media and technology. My attention is really short, I am quicker to anger or become frustrated…it’s like I can tell when I have run in while and I have been eating poorly. I just feel yucky. I do take time away from technology. I try to stay off technology outside of work and while the boy is awake. Once the boy goes to bed, it’s homework time. This class has caused me to be more active at different points of the week rather than my regular, routine times that existed prior to this class. Moderation. Recognition. Change in behavior when needed. Those are the three keys to success in my mind. Very similar to keeping up with my running routine.