Posts Tagged ‘attention’

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?

I have been looking forward to this book since Alex first told me he was working on it (he was kind enough to agree to serve on the advisory board for a project I planned).

The book doesn’t disappoint. OK, that’s an understatement. It’s one of those books I wish I had written.

Even though this is a book about the dangers of technology use, it is not one of those panicked, hopeless, technology-hating arguments. It is a guide for making the best out of technology – for using it rather than being used by it.

The book’s premise rests in the idea of the extended mind, a concept Alex reframes as entanglement with technology. At its best, entanglement is a state of feeling the body and mind being pleasantly and seamlessly extended by technology – perceiving technology as part of oneself, just like a skilled skier perceives the skis as part of herself when zooming down a slope. This kind of entanglement has been happening since the beginning of history and tool use. Whether you use skis, an axe, a bicycle, a pen, a car, or a computer, you can have that sense of it extending your human abilities, being a part of yourself. However, there are times when entanglement goes wrong, and technology feels like a pair of broken, uncomfortable, awkward high-heel shoes. Then, it becomes an extension of yourself that hinders movement, an arm that doesn’t obey the brain’s commands; a cause of frustration and stress.

The book is grounded in solid Western empirical research as well as Eastern thought and practice. It combines the two to propose a guide for the positive kind of entanglement. In the last chapter, it offers 8 principles for doing so:

  1. be human
  2. be calm
  3. be mindful
  4. make conscious choices
  5. extend your abilities
  6. seek flow
  7. engage with the world
  8. restore your capacity for attention

The book ends beautifully and hopefully:

“You are the inheritor of a contemplative legacy that you can use to retake control of your technology, to tame the monkey mind, and to redesign your extended mind. Connection is inevitable. Distraction is a choice.”

The question remains, how easy and feasible is the plan proposed in this book? I find it feasible, but not necessarily easy. It requires some training of executive attention (aka mindfulness) that might take a while to develop, and demands commitment to regular practice.