Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: The Distraction Addiction (page 2 of 9)

Bored and Brilliant: Day 1

WNYC’s Bored and Brilliant challenge starts today.

What’s on the agenda?

As you move from place to place, keep your phone in your pocket, out of your direct line of sight. Better yet, keep it in your bag.

I would think if there was one place in the world you could wander around with our looking at your cellphone, it would be New York, but as host Manoush Zomorodi recently found, a third of people on the streets are looking down at their phones while walking. (In my experience the number is astronomical on subways.)

Times Square at night

The podcast features an interview with me, which we conducted a few weeks ago.

Microphone

You can listen to it below. Manoush and her team did an excellent job editing it.

It concludes with several suggestions for how to better manage your phone, using whitelists, special ringtones, and so on. It was fun.

I really like the Bored and Brilliant challenge because, unlike many “put down your phone and get back to the real world” sorts of challenges, Manoush and her team seem intent on providing listeners with advice about what to do instead of checking their mail a dozen times an hour. Too often these campaigns treat digital distraction as a moral failing that simply requires Being A Better Person; the Bored and Brilliant approach is more constructive.

It’s also perfectly balanced between my last book and my next one. As I said in another recent interview, while The Distraction Addiction is about the benefits of mindfulness, the next book is about the benefits of mind-wandering— and how digital technologies do a brilliant job of intruding on both, by offering diversions that seep into our time as effectively as water into a basement.

Mindfulness and mind-wandering don’t just share a mutual enemy. They’re linked to each other. (By mind-wandering I mean not distraction— having your attention drawing to B when it should be on A— but rather allowing your mind to be focused on nothing at all, and leaving it free to attend to what it wants, without conscious effort.) The evidence I’m seeing is that people who are capable of concentrating really hard on a subject are also very good at intentionally disengaging their minds; that, in effect, improving your ability to do the one improves your ability to do the other.

So to be brilliant, it seems, you must be bored.

How “5 Signs You Should Take a Break From Social Media” shows there’s no such thing as a small media request

Almost exactly a month ago, a nice writer emailed me about an article she was writing on taking a break from social media, and asking if I could answer some questions for it. I get these kinds of requests regularly, and ever since The Distraction Addiction appeared and I started doing press for it, my attitude is shaped by the old city politician’s saying: I’ll appear at the opening of an envelope.

So a couple days later I got some questions, sent back my answers, and didn’t think much about it. Then, just before Thanksgiving, the article came out in Health Magazine, complete with an excellent illustration.

A few days later, it got translated into Dutch… then Turkish… then appeared on a Web sites in Nigeria and Australia and Malaysia… and Huffington Post… and yesterday, Time picked it up. [Update 1: Now ABC News has it in slide show form. Update 2: Spanish, Croatian, Indonesian, and I think Hungarian. ]

It may seen like a case of “Hey, I’m world famous!” but watching this piece spread in places I’ve never heard of, with no involvement on my own part, undermines that feeling. It’s a textual Roomba bouncing around the Internet’s kitchen. I’m just the cat dressed as a shark.

This also illustrates the most important thing I’ve learned about dealing with media requests: There’s no such thing as a small media request.

You never know which pieces are going to blow up (or at least get republished a lot), and which ones will land with no impact whatsoever.

Some outlets turn out to have insanely good syndication. I had no idea until now, but it seems that Health has a terrifyingly wide range of syndication deals, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the article ends up read by Mongolian herders, the crews of Russian icebreakers, and dolphins.

You also don’t know if the person who has a few questions and Thursday deadline has a YouTube channel with a million followers, or is South Africa’s biggest advice columnist, or is having coffee with a New York Times assignments editor and could build a piece around your work, or is a struggling freelancer who could use a break. It’s just too big a world for you to have heard of everyone who’s widely-read, or whose words have influence. So be nice to everybody.

Finally, if you’re going to be funny and notable, don’t let it be at the expense of your advice. You don’t want a memorable bad quote. Just as you need to be nice to everybody, you need to take all requests equally seriously. You might think the questions are poorly-phrased, or rehashes of questions you’ve been asked a thousand times before, or barely better than the questions Ali G would ask. You know what? Take it seriously anyway. I’m not exactly Samuel Johnson when I’m on deadline, and you should assume that what you say will be quoted.

Your search for five signs you need to take a break from social media is over!

Because I break it down in this Health magazine article. Basically, the advice (drawn from my book) comes down to this: it’s fine to weave social media into your life, but don’t let it warp your life.

Weaving

I thought the article was going to be me and a bunch of other people, but it turns out mainly to be drawn from a series of emails with a Health writer. Which is fine, and it illustrates something I’m learning as I become more of a talking head: you just never really know what shape an article you’re quoted in is going to take. You have to just do your best to say things that are true, that don’t sound stupid on the page, and that are memorable.

And I love that they illustrate it with a picture of a woman taking a picture of her dog with her iPhone:

It didn’t come up in the interview, but I take a lot of pictures of my dogs with my iPhone:

Rah roo?

So I appreciated the photo editor’s choice of picture!

Reading my book in Argentina

A picture of someone reading the Spanish edition of The Distraction Addiction in (I believe) the Buenos Aires subway system, from a Tumblr of people reading on subways:

This is the cover:

Thanks, Male Sánchez Moccero!

Chinese article about The Distraction Addiction

If you read Chinese, this article about The Distraction Addiction might interest you. Me, I just look at the pictures.

Speaking at Convergence 2014

I'm going up to Edmonton, Canada to do a keynote at Convergence 2014, a conference on educational technology. I hadn't written the book with this audience in mind, but The Distraction Addiction has caught the attention of a number of people in the educational technology world, and folks in independent schools.

Of course in retrospect it makes perfect sense: they're a community that's both concerned about issues around technology, attention and distraction, and well-positioned to do something about it. And the argument that there are things we can do to help users be more thoughtful and mindful reinforces their existing educational mission.

I confess I know nothing about Edmonton, other than it's going to be cold. An opportunity to learn!

Talking about contemplative computing in Princeton and New Haven

Last week I spent several days on the road, on a whirlwind trip to the East Coast to talk about contemplative computing and The Distraction Addiction. It was just happy chance that I got two invitations to talk in the same week, and was able to make it work.

The first was in Princeton, at the Princeton Atelier, a project at the Peter Lewis Center for the Performing Arts that Toni Morrison started a few years ago. This fall theatre director Marianne Weems is teaching a class called “Pay Attention: The Art of the Here and Now,” and so I was invited to give a talk as part of the course.

Nassau Hall

I’ve not been to Princeton since 1999, when I gave a talk on corporate life and the life of the mind; so it was good to be back among colonial and collegiate Gothic buildings. I got there Wednesday evening, and after checking into the hotel, took my camera and went out for a walk.

Princeton

After living in Cambridge, I expected to think less of the campus, but I found Princeton not to be a copy of Cambridge of Oxford architecture, but quite a different place: much less urban, more self-contained, and pleasing in its architectural unity. I think there are also some subtle but important differences in the way American architects interpreted Gothic that make it less a copy, and more distinctive and independent.

Princeton

But mainly, Oxford and Cambridge are located in towns, and don’t have the amount of park-like open space that American campuses do. (They have plenty of land, but for the wealthier colleges the land is more like a portfolio of holdings than a single big expanse.) Downtown Princeton, of course, is right beside the university, but it’s separated by Nassau Street, and is not exactly the set of Low Winter Sun.

Princeton

Princeton is also the darkest campus I’ve been in in a long time.

Princeton lamp

There are these Chronicles of Narnia-style lampposts scattered around, but compared to most campuses (like Penn, for example), it’s shadow-shrouded, and for some reason the cyclists all seem to think it’s cool to move around campus like Ringwraiths, with no lights or reflectors.

Princeton

The next morning it was raining, and I needed to go over my talk, so I spent the morning at a coffeeshop on Nassau Street. I then had lunch with Marianne, and went over to the Lewis Center (a former elementary school on the edge of campus) to get ready for the talk.

https://farm6.static.flickr.com/5613/15557874647_b5d97786d6.jpg

The talk itself was good: I did a more academic version than usual (which I figured I could get away with given my location), and also worked in some of my argument about deliberate rest. I’ve recently realized how much it picks up on and extends some of the themes from The Distraction Addiction, while also breaking new ground and giving closer attention to some things that I didn’t talk about in detail. So when I have time, talking about them both is nice.

If I’d had more time I would have gone over to the Institute for Advanced Study, and found Einstein’s house, but immediately after my talk I had to head to the train, as I had to get up to New Haven.

Views of Yale

Friday morning I was scheduled to give a talk at Hopkins School, one of the oldest secondary schools in America. I arrived without a problem, though changing trains in New York meant going from Penn Station to Grand Central during rush hour, which was fun. Still, I made it fine, and got into New Haven on Thursday night, and got settled into a palatial room at The Study at Yale, a new hotel right on campus.

My suite at the Study Hotel

I then went out a while, with the camera, had a little dinner, then came back and went to bed.

Views of Yale

This is notable because traditionally, the night before a talk I'm up late, working on the last sections, trying to construct a conclusion or chase down an illustration that would underline a point I’m trying to make. I then deliver the talk from a heavily annotated script, with the slides just freshly saved to a jump drive, and my enthusiasm for my subject looking suspiciously like a mix of fatigue and adrenaline.

Architecture Building

This time, I did something different: I finished the slides the week before, and froze the talk. I tinkered a bit with the language, tightening up a phrase here and there, but left the slides and structure alone.

My suite at the Study Hotel

This is how I’m going to do talks from now on. Not that I’ll give the same talk over and over— that’s still not my way, and I don’t think it every will be— but having the slides frozen days earlier meant that I really concentrated on the language and pacing of the talk, and didn’t waste lots of time experimenting with structure or flipping through my Flickr account looking for that picture of Piccadilly Circus at night that I’m sure I took in 2009.

The next morning I got picked up by the Hopkins people; we went up to the campus, made sure everything worked, then I dove right in.

Speaking at The Hopkins School

The talk was in the school gym, which they use for assemblies. It was the whole school, middle and high school, as well as the faculty; so it was a younger crowd than I often talk to, but totally engaged and very smart. I don’t think the younger grades had any trouble following my argument, and in the Q&A and breakout group discussions that followed, it was clear that the upper school got it.

The Hopkins School

Actually, I’ve been really impressed at how seriously high schoolers take issues of digital distraction, and the problems of integrating technology into their social and personal lives. Too often we assume that teens are constitutionally incapable of making good decisions about technology, or if left unattended will spend thousands of hours on Tinder and GTA V, and don’t know what’s at stake in their choices.

The Hopkins School

My experience is that that’s wrong. Granted, the students I’m talking to are literally the elite— kids at some of the best schools in the country— but they’re not dopamine-addled click monkeys who don’t care that they can’t finish War and Peace. They’re as aware as their parents of what’s at stake, and how challenging it can be to figure out how to make technology work for them.

The Hopkins School

We need to see them not as the ones we adults need to Fix. We need to help them figure out how to fix these problems themselves.

Santa Catalina School talk

Saturday I was at the Santa Catalina School in Monterey, talking about kids, parenting, schools, and contemplative computing (a riff on my book The Distraction Addiction).

Talking about being human in the age of distraction
Photo: Courtney Shove, Santa Catalina School

I’ve given a number of talks about contemplative computing (thanks mainly to the wonderful Lavin Agency), but most of them have been to professional groups, or parents, and occasionally kids. This was the first time I had a chance to speak to all three at once, and it presented a really interesting opportunity.

Just a reminder to turn off your cellphones
Photo: Courtney Shove, Santa Catalina School

All too often, when thinking about technology, kids and distraction, we make two mistakes: we think of it as a Young Person Problem, and we think of it as an individual issue.

It's easy to fall into thinking that technology has created an insurmountable gulf between us and the young, that kids are high-tech mutants. We hear stories, for example, about how texting rather than having face-to-face interactions make kids less able to read facial expressions, and hence more like robots.

R2-D2 costume

But in fact, we all are challenged to figure out how to make technologies work well for us, regardless of our age. While there are some generational differences in the specific contexts we work in and the specific issues we face— adults face less cyberbullying (Gamergate excepted), while kids aren’t dealing with distraction in the workplace— we all face them.

And while it’s easy to think of distraction as a personal problem, a moral failing or sign of weakness— my distractions are very much my own— it also has a social and organizational dimension. We're beckoned by devices and social networks that want to capture and commoditize our attention. But if we can remake our relationship with devices, we can also use OTHER social networks to reinforce our efforts to become more focused, more thoughtful, more creative. Schools and families are two of the most important social networks.

Let's talk about distraction
Photo: Courtney Shove, Santa Catalina School

So trying to help our children and our students solve this problem is a way to solve it for ourselves. And this collective dimension is one that it was really good to be able to talk about, with everyone involved.

Speaking at Princeton next Thursday, November 6

I’m going to be at Princeton next week, doing a more academic-than-usual talk on contemplative computing and The Distraction Addiction.

I'm appearing there as part of the “Pay Attention: The Art of Here and Now” course, taught by director Marianne Weems.

The undergraduate course taught by Weems questions whether our sense of the present — to which we are meant to be attentive — has changed, and the impact of Twitter, Instagram and the “selfie” on making art. The course draws upon various perspectives with guest speakers, of which Pang is one, focusing on spirituality, neuroscience, ontology, psychology, and gaming to investigate these questions of modern consciousness.

The Princeton Atelier is an interesting project: started by Toni Morrison, it "brings together professional artists from different disciplines to create new work in the context of a semester-long course.”

I haven’t been in Princeton in ages, so it’ll be great to visit again.

Korean edition of the book

Another fabulous cover, this time for the Korean edition of The Distraction Addiction (published by Sigongsa):

I haven't had a bad one yet, even though the Dutch, Spanish, and Chinese versions are all quite different from each other. It's been fascinating to see how different artists interpret the book!

You can order copies here.

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