Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Contemplative computing (page 1 of 61)

“One day without notifications changes behaviour for two years”

Several years ago, Spanish telecommunications firm Telefónica ran something called the Do Not Disturb Challenge.

It’s one of a number of such events that have been sponsored by schools, civic organizations, and groups interested in helping people regain control over our devices.

At the time, it looked like it was kind of a failure. Even after they scaled it back from a week to 24 hours (“[W]e couldn’t recruit anybody to take part,” one of the researchers told New Scientist. “We just got empty, horrified stares. And so eventually we backed down to 24 hours.”) Even after that, only about 30 people signed up. (The researchers explained their preliminary findings in a 2015 article.)

However, New Scientist notes, “two-thirds of the participants said they would change how they managed their notifications.” The researchers have gone back to the participants and talked to them about their smartphone use and attitudes towards notifications, and found something really interesting, as they report in a new article (with the somewhat discouraging title “Productive, Anxious, Lonely: 24 Hours Without Push Notifications“).

The New Scientist reports that “half had actually stuck with this goal two years on, suggesting that even a short, enforced holiday is a powerful intervention.” But as they put it in the article,

The evidence indicates that notifications have locked us in a dilemma: without notifications, participants felt less distracted and more productive. But, they also felt no longer able to be as responsive as expected, which made some participants anxious. And, they felt less connected with one’s social group.

It’s really interesting that digital sabbaths can have a long-term effect on behavior.

The other thing I would note is that it’s possible to customize notifications so that you’re still accessible to the people who really matter, but aren’t disturbed by messages about how the online retailer you visited 6 months ago is having 20% off everything. I talk in this article about how to reset your notifications so your phone does what it’s supposed to– keep you accessible to people who count– and not what app makers and retailers want. It’ll help your phone pass what I call the “zombie apocalypse test,” keeping your connected to the people you’d call during the zombie apocalypse, and no one else.

Martin Pielot and Luz Rello, “Productive, Anxious, Lonely – 24 Hours Without Push Notifications,” in Proceedings of MobileHCI ’17 (Vienna, Austria, September 04-07, 2017).

Honolulu fights ‘smartphone zombies’

More of Kauai
Just enjoy the sunset!

The city of Honolulu has passed a law that “targets ‘smartphone zombies’,” people crossing the street while using their smartphones and not looking where they’re going:

“We hold the unfortunate distinction of being a major city with more pedestrians being hit in crosswalks, particularly our seniors, than almost any other city in the county,” [Honolulu mayor Kirk] Caldwell said.

The ban will go into effect in late October and will run from $15 to $99, depending on the severity of the offense.

I was recently in Hawaii, though on a different island, and was struck by how reflexive checking phones in restaurants, taking selfies, etc. has become. Even in an island paradise, many of us feel the need to keep our phones out and active all the time.

Imported contemplative computing posts

Outside Clowns of Cambridge
Clowns of Cambridge, where I first started thinking about rest while working on contemplative computing

I spent a little time this morning and imported posts from my contemplative computing blog. I’ve been moving things from Typepad to WordPress over the last few months, and realized that it actually made sense to move those posts here.

For one thing, whenever I talk about deliberate rest I end up also talking about issues that are the subject of my earlier book, The Distraction Addiction: you can’t really talk about mind-wandering without distinguishing it from distraction, or explaining how together mind-wandering and focus help you do things that neither can alone.

Dessert and writing at Clowns

Also, people often are interested in hearing about how deliberate rest and focused work (or deliberate work?) interact. It’s good to have time for both, but it’s clear from my study of creative lives that when they perform a pad a deux, or are thoughtfully woven together, they’re far more powerful and expressive than if they’re treated as separate.

The weaving room

Finally, midway through REST I realized that I was actually writing a kind of sequel to The Distraction Addiction. I started thinking about rest and creativity when I was at Cambridge working on contemplative computing, so chronologically the two books are more like twins than prequel and sequel.

Anyway, I’ll have to clean up broken links and so on, but that’ll be for later.

Greyscale your smartphone screen to make it less compelling

I hadn’t heard of this idea until this Atlantic video from James Hamblin:

Is attention a resource or a relationship?

Tom Chatfield’s short essay, “The attention economy,” raises an interesting question: why do we think of attention as a resource?

For all the sophistication of a world in which most of our waking hours are spent consuming or interacting with media, we have scarcely advanced in our understanding of what attention means. What are we actually talking about when we base both business and mental models on a ‘resource’ that, to all intents and purposes, is fabricated from scratch every time a new way of measuring it comes along?

For the ancients, Chatfield notes, attention wasn’t a resource; it was a relationship.

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, this wooing [i.e., getting other’s attention] was a sufficiently fine art in itself to be the central focus of education. As the manual on classical rhetoric Rhetorica ad Herennium put it 2,100 years ago: ‘We wish to have our hearer receptive, well-disposed, and attentive (docilem, benivolum, attentum).’ To be civilised was to speak persuasively about the things that mattered: law and custom, loyalty and justice.

In this understanding, there is no such thing as “attention” as something that exists outside a relationship. It’s not like energy, or a pint of blood: it only exists between the person giving their attention, and the person trying to hold it. Indeed, Chatfield points out,

In Latin, the verb attendere — from which our word ‘attention’ derives — literally means to stretch towards. A compound of ad (‘towards’) and tendere (‘to stretch’), it invokes an archetypal image: one person bending towards another in order to attend to them, both physically and mentally.

I think there’s still some value in the attention-as-resource model, if only because we can demonstrate that humans have only a certain amount of attention they can “pay” in a day; in that respect, it’s like self-discipline or decision-making. But the notion that it can be treated as essentially interchangeable with coal or wind, does bear some rethinking.

The Internet of Things is just another way to distract you

One of the things you always, and I mean always, hear about Internet of Things and smart home devices is that they “just work.” They’re all like these magic autonomous robots that’ll connect themselves to your wifi, then go do their thing, yet also be totally unobtrusive and intuitive (whatever those two words mean). Sounds cool, right?

Of course, the reality is very different, as this essay from IoS explains. The light went on sometime around the point when the author’s Internet-enabled thermostat stopped working whenever the wifi connection was lost (and “The only way to control the gadget is via the app, so when it breaks you’re really screwed”), and it came time to update their Philips Hue light bulbs: “When the first firmware update rolled around, it was exciting, until I spent an hour trying to update lightbulbs. Nobody warned me that being an adult would mean wasting my waking hours updating Linux on a set of lightbulbs, rebooting them until they’d take the latest firmware. The future is great.”

In other words, things work great until they don’t, at which point all the wheels come off. Further, as we’ve learned recently, connected devices are “connected” to the fates of their companies, in a way that “dumb” devices are not. If the company that made your hammer or pants goes belly-up, that doesn’t affect your ability to pound nails or cover up your naughty bits. But that’s not the case with smart home devices.

A one-time purchase of a smart device isn’t a sustainable plan for companies that need to run servers to support those devices. Not only are you buying into a smart device that might not turn out to be as smart as you thought, it’s possible it’ll just stop working in two years or so when the company goes under or gets acquired.

The Internet of Things right now is a mess. It’s being built by scrappy startups with delusions of grandeur, but no backup plan for when connectivity fails, or consideration for if their business models reach out more than a year or two — leaving you and me at risk.

Just another indicator of how technologies of the future could turn out to be really distracting.

16 hours a month on Facebook is the new normal

A new study by Comscore of Americans’ social media network use in 2015 reveals that people over 35 spend an average of 22 hours a month on social media, and Millenials spend 36 hours a month, according to Quartz:

Monthly time on Facebook alone amounts to 15 hours (for 35+) and 17 hours (for 18-34), or an average of 16 hours a month between the two groups (which I know are not the same size, so that average is not statistically meaningful, but still). That’s a pretty substantial chunk of time, but if you spend 30 minutes a day on Facebook, that gets you to 900 minutes per month without breaking a sweat. Little pieces of time really add up.

“Our challenge is to build that wisdom into our next generations of contemplative technology”

I’m deep in revisions of the next book and am not taking the time to write at length about anything else, but I wanted to flag this Vincent Horn piece on virtual reality and Buddhism.

Buddhist contemplative traditions have, for millennia, carefully led us in the process of deconstructing our normal sense of identity and replacing it with one that’s both fluid and responsive. Our challenge is to build that wisdom into our next generations of contemplative technology.

Habituation, attention, and distraction

We often regard a failure of focus as a failure of will, or a moral failure. But there’s also a physical and physiological foundation to our capacity to focus on a problem, or remember a number. And there’s an interesting study that suggests that our tendency to wander off-topic isn’t so much a function of willpower, or our mental inadequacies, as it is a reflection of our natural capacity for what scientists call “habituation.”

Habituation is the phenomenon where you stop noticing regular things in your environment: the rain on the roof, the ticking of a clock, the objects in your field of vision. We think our vision encompasses a nearly-hemispherical area in front of us, but in fact our eyes are only focused on a small part of that world at any given time, and we stop keeping track of things that aren’t moving. Our brains are good at creating a sense that we’re continuously observing the world, though that illusion is not perfect— if we’re concentrating hard while reading, for example, we can be surprised by the “sudden” appearance of a bird on the windowsill or a person in the room.

A couple years ago, University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras wondered, what if focus is subject to the same rules that govern sensory habituation? What if our minds naturally tend to wander off things we think are repetitive? As he explained in 2012,

For 40 or 50 years, most papers published on the vigilance decrement treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time, and I believe that to be wrong. You start performing poorly on a task because you’ve stopped paying attention to it. But you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem.

That insight that attention isn’t something that waxes and wanes, but instead is something that’s always directed somewhere, led him to draw a parallel between the attention we give to a task, and the fact that we tend to “edit out” stationary objects in our environment: 

Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness. So I thought, well, if there’s some kind of analogy about the ways the brain fundamentally processes information, things that are true for sensations ought to be true for thoughts. If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought’s disappearance from our mind!

He and his colleague Atsunori Ariga, then a postdoc at University of Illinois, constructed a simple test. Four groups of students were given slightly different tasks.

  • The first (the control group) had to spend 40 minutes doing a “vigilance test,” in which they looked at a flashing line on a screen. Every now and then the length would change, and they were supposed to note whenever it changed. The line flashed 30 times a minute, so subjects looked at lines… over… and over… and over… a total of 1200 times.
  • A second group (the “no-switch” group) had to memorize a four-digit number before doing the vigilance test.
  • A third group (the “switch” group) memorized the four-digit number, then started the vigilance test; but this group also had very short breaks (after 600 and 900 lines) where they were tested on the number.
  • A fourth group (the “digit-ignored” group) saw the same thing that the switch group saw, but was told to ignore the numbers.

To be clear, the purpose of the experiment wasn’t to test whether people could remember the numbers; it was testing whether having this other brief task helped people pay attention to the lines— that is, their performance on the vigilance test.

What they found was that the performance of the third group was pretty consistent, but everybody else got worse over time.

So does this mean that multitasking is actually good? Does texting while driving make you a better driver.

Well, no.

As they put it, “heightened levels of vigilance can be maintained over prolonged periods of time with the use of brief, relatively rare and actively controlled disengagements from the vigilance task.” But they’re testing how well you do on a very simple task. If you’re working on an assembly line, and literally the only think you do is make sure that three bolts are properly tightened, then this kind of break is essential. But if you’re doing something complex, then introducing a second task isn’t going to improve your performance. Indeed, the opposite is a lot more likely.

The challenge is to find a brief respite that is different, but doesn’t threaten to take too much time. This is why a “quick” email check is problematic: checking your email is rarely quick, because there’s almost always something that you feel needs an immediate reply, or leads to something else.

But you can imagine that automobile auto-pilots could be really useful here: if they were designed to let you take 30 seconds every 10 minutes or so to refocus your eyes, blink, and maybe run through some mental exercise— a couple Trivial Pursuit questions, for example— that could recharge your ability to stay focused on the road.

Here’s the abstract:

We newly propose that the vigilance decrement occurs because the cognitive control system fails to maintain active the goal of the vigilance task over prolonged periods of time (goal habituation). Further, we hypothesized that momentarily deactivating this goal (via a switch in tasks) would prevent the activation level of the vigilance goal from ever habituating. We asked observers to perform a visual vigilance task while maintaining digits in-memory. When observers retrieved the digits at the end of the vigilance task, their vigilance performance steeply declined over time. However, when observers were asked to sporadically recollect the digits during the vigilance task, the vigilance decrement was averted. Our results present a direct challenge to the pervasive view that vigilance decrements are due to a depletion of attentional resources and provide a tractable mechanism to prevent this insidious phenomenon in everyday life.

(via this post by Julia Gifford about the Draugiem Group study of productivity and breaks)

Where I Write: Authors show that all writing spaces are pretty similar

This evening while trying to figure out what in the world Periscope is and whether I should use it to promote REST, I came across Where I Write (or technically, #WhereIWrite), a series of videos in which authors show you where they… well… write.

Not a bad series; if anything there are an embarrassment of riches, and too many authors to choose from. But after dipping into it a bit, I realized a couple things:

  • The production values on Periscope are really low. I suspect this is intentional, both to keep the service simple and to promote a kind of Blair Witch low-fi realism. But these are shot on iPhones, and in many of them the writers are holding the camera, so it’s no surprise if the results don’t keep Akira Kurosawa up and night.
  • All writing spaces look the same. Some have cats, some have dogs, some have a sofa, but fundamentally they’re the same. I’m sure mine will look like everyone else’s when I finally do one of these.

I think when we get close to the book launch I’ll start doing these. It seems worth trying, and not too difficult.

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