Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: The Distraction Addiction (page 1 of 9)

“What people are angry about… is that we no longer feel in control of the technology in our lives”

In my book The Distraction Addiction I talked about how humans have evolved to have incredibly powerful relationships with technologies, starting with hand axes a million years ago, and continuing down to the present; how our relationships with technologies are among the most powerful we have; and that the challenge with today’s technologies was not to learn to live without them, but to learn to use them better. This meant recognizing the power of those relationships; thinking more deeply about them; and re-learning how to use them well, rather than being used by them.

Arianna Huffington has a piece about “The Anger at the Heart of the Facebook Hearings” that echoes this:

What people are angry about, and what’s truly fueling this moment, is that we no longer feel in control of the technology in our lives. That feeling of losing control has been building steadily for the last several years, as our lives have become both more dominated by technology and more dependent on technology. It’s the feeling that the pace of our lives, and the next thing on our to-do list, is no longer up to us. It comes via the endless screens and algorithms we’re immersed in. And we know that the feeling of autonomy is one of the single most important factors in our happiness. But we’re feeling less and less autonomous.

I think this has a lot truth to it, though there is real ill-feeling toward companies, not just technologies and our relationships with them. Control is one of the things we instinctively use to measure the trustworthiness of a technology; it’s also something we need in order to use them well.

So it make sense that the sense that a company is designing its product to elude our control should inspire suspicion and hostility. We’ve coevolved with technologies, and expect to be able to use them to extend our cognitive and physical abilities; and when that relationship is broken, it’s a big problem for us.

“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.

Is work-life balance a myth?

Yesterday I was on an episode of Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” to talk about work-life balance, rest and technology.

It was interesting doing a TV show, especially via Skype from my garage office. This is what it looks like behind the scenes:

About to go on Al Jazeera's "The Stream" to talk about technology and work-life balance.

I have a second screen and the webcam drops down front of it, so i can look at a Skype conversation I can come closer to making eye contact (i.e. staring at the camera not the display); I also had the names of the other participants written on a Post-It and stuck on the screen, as there are few things more embarrassing than forgetting your host’s name!

The studio-grade mic is one I bought a couple years ago, and I’m constantly surprised at how good it sounds.

Finally, I had a pair of earbuds that looped behind my head; I avoid the 1960s NASA mission control look when I can.

Most of the lessons I’ve learned doing radio apply to television appearances, but there are two differences.

First, you’ve gotta be really still. In lots of radio interviews I’m on Skype or my phone, and I can wander around the kitchen as I talk. I’m one of those people who likes to move as they talk or think (embodied cognition in action!), but you don’t have this outlet when you’re on TV. You gotta stand really still.

In fact, next time I’m going to make sure to sit down, because that’ll be easier to sustain for half an hour.

Second, never take your eyes off the camera, even if a wolverine is growling at your ankle. Even a brief look away is noticeable. It’s really striking.

But I’m learning.

The Stream” is also an interesting show because it’s one of those that incorporates feedback from social media, which meant I had several Twitter exchanges after the show with people.

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.

Now it’s in Italian!

The Distraction Addiction has been translated into Italian. The cover looks familiar:

Dipendenza Digitale has a new preface, a conversation with me and journalist Dario Villa. (Very Galilean.) It was fun working with Dario on the preface: these kinds of opportunities to think in new ways about familiar subjects is always welcome.

Interview with ABC Sunshine Coast on technology and distraction

A couple days ago I was interviewed on ABC Sunshine Coast's morning show about technology and distraction. You can now listen to the interview on Soundcloud:

For a short interview it covers a fair amount of ground. The interviewer asked good questions.

Distraction Addiction, Jesus, and You

Very interesting to see this:

It’s a series at The Story Houston, a new church in Houston. a sermon by Eric Huffman on “Distraction Addiction, Jesus, and You.” Here’s a sermon from this past weekend:


The Story Houston – March 15, 2015 from The Story Houston on Vimeo

It starts with a long story about the pastor’s own distraction; it gets more serious around minute 10.

i’ve written a certain amount about technology, distraction and religion, the challenges modern churches face in accommodating people with shorter attention spans, and the ways in which religious practice and contemplatives have done battle with distraction for millennia. Still, it’s very interesting to see the term worked into a sermon. I just hope a few parishioners Googled “distraction addiction” after the sermon and found the book!

And who knew that “church” is now a top level domain? Learn something new every day.

“We know how to use tools; the problem is that our smartphones don’t know how to be good ones.”

Another new article of mine, this time in the Penn Gazette, which happens to be my alumni magazine. I really like the 1970s cybernetic thing going on in the accompanying illustration:

The piece is essentially about smartphones, and how the ideas in The Distraction Addiction (available here) can be used to bring them back under our control.

We know how to use tools; the problem is that our smartphones don’t know how to be good ones. Our natural inclination is to treat them as extensions of our selves—and sometimes that works just fine. For example, aside from those of my wife and children, I haven’t memorized a phone number in years, because I can trust my smartphone’s flawless recall. But other apps are designed to capture and resell my attention; and the more I interact with them, the better they get at distracting me. (I’m looking at you, Facebook.) Our phones are clever enough to grab our attention, but not smart enough to guard it, or know when we should be left alone.

The good news is, you can turn these weapons of mass distraction, these interruption amplifiers, into filters that protect your attention rather than compete for it.

Digital Mindfulness podcast

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by London-based writer and entrepreneur Lawrence Ampofo for his Digital Mindfulness podcast. The piece is now live.

Along the Embankment

In addition to listening to someone who has an absolutely awesome English accent— the kind that makes Americans just roll over and wave their paws in the air— this interview interesting for me because I talk about both The Distraction Addiction and Rest, and what these two apparently disparate subjects have in common.

The Embankment

You can also just hit play on the bar below.

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