Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Talks (page 2 of 6)

My CSCW ’16 talk on focus, mind-wandering, and connectivity

[This is a transcript, slightly cleaned up, of a talk I gave earlier today at CSCW 2016. I was asked by Gloria Mark to join a panel on constant connectivity after she read The Distraction Addiction; but rather than give a talk that summarized my earlier book, I decided to use the talk as an opportunity to draw out the connections between that project and my new book, Rest.]

When we were talking about the panel, Gloria asked us each to share a picture that illustrates our thinking about technology. I chose this one:

Acheulean hand axe and iPhone

We all know what the device on the right is; the one on the left is a million year-old hand axe. I put these together to make the point that while we sometimes think that technologies have an alienating or dehumanizing affect on us, the opposite is actually the case. Humans have coevolved with our technologies. We and our ancestors have never lived in a world without technologies, and we wouldn’t be able to exist without them. Not only that, over the years we’ve become really good at using them to extend our physical abilities, augment our cognitive abilities, enrich our extended minds (as Andy Clark puts it)—and to enjoy doing so.

One reason today’s technologies can be so good at capturing attention, and why the stakes in being constantly connected turn out to be high, is that they’re tapping into a profound human ability, and a profoundly humanizing one: this talent for using technologies so well they feel like they’re extensions of us is one of the defining traits of our species. Some of them are designed to perform like weapons of mass distraction, and our tools for capturing and processing attention are getting better all the time; others, like email, are addicting mainly for social and organizational reasons.

My brain on texting

So far, critics like Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle have mainly been focused on how device and connectivity are cleverly designed to distract us, and more generally erode our ability to focus. That can mean being more prone to distraction when trying to complete a specific task, like having cat videos distracting you from an article you need to read for work.

At another level, it can mean eroding your capacity for focus, which like willpower can be depleted, and get in the way of your ability to finish a big task, like a dissertation.

Buddha in the Japanese Tea Garden

It’s easy to think that this is a new problem, and that the world used to be a less distracting place. But that would be incorrect. The history of developing tools and practices and spaces to promote our ability to control our mental states—to concentrate on a problem, to clear our minds, even relax our conscious attention—goes back to ancient times. The fact that some of the most popular tools for learning to become aware of the state of our minds, and to move from one state to another, are very old—which tells us that problems with distraction are, too.

Now, we usually talk about mindfulness and meditation, not control of mental states. Indeed, I wrote a book about how technologies can distract us, and how we can learn to use them to be more focused and mindful. But in the course of writing my new book, Rest, I realized that there was another side to our engagement with devices. They don’t just distract us, or affect our focus. They can also do a good job eroding our capacity for another, less well-appreciated mental state: mind-wandering.


This is not as well-known as focus (and it’s absolutely not the same as distraction), and in our lives we generally don’t feel it’s something worth defending as urgently. But psychologists are finding that mind-wandering isn’t just a kind of energy-saving mode for the brain: during mind-wandering we play our future scenarios, ruminate over past events, and run through possible solutions to problems that we’ve been working on—all without conscious effort, or our being aware that we’re doing it.

Focus and mind-wandering

There even seems to be a connection between focus and mind-wandering: the more time we spend doing things that allow our minds to relax and unfocus, the deeper our capacity for intense concentration.

Shifting between these two states also helps us to be more creative. We’ve all had the experience of working hard on a problem, then having the answer appear when we’re in line at the store or out on a walk.

In my new book, I argue that creative people design their schedules and habits to support both periods of intense focus, and mind-wandering.

Being aware of our mental states, learning to control them, and understanding our own minds and work well enough to know which state we need to be in, is a great challenge. Most creative figures struggle for years to figure it out.

So how does this relate to technology and connectivity?

Life's better when we're connected

Learning to use tools so well that they become extensions of our minds is important for awakening this sense that we can control “the contents of our consciousness,” as William James put it. It’s why children who have time to play seem to have better focus in class. It’s why a surprising number of world-class scientists, engineers, and writers are also rock-climbers, sailors, serious musicians, or artists. It’s why in Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow (if you don’t know it, read these posts) many activities in which people find that optimal state involve using technologies intimately.

So can we design to better support learning how to control our mental states, to drop into intense concentration or mind-wandering? I’m optimistic that we can.

There’s a long history of humans being confronted with new forms of distraction, then developing new techniques to deal with them. In debates about the long-term effect of digital technologies on our minds, attention spans, or sociability, people sometimes point out that Plato complained about writing competing with speech and eroding memory, and that people worried about the impact of the printing press, the telegraph, and newspaper; and the implication is that these complaints fade over time, and people simply adjust. That’s not accurate. People develop techniques to deal with new distractions. We don’t just adapt. We deliberately craft new practices.


Discovering the pleasures of focus, the virtues of solitude, the value of mind-wandering is something most very creative people do as adults, and I think our devices are in a sort of adolescence: we love the easy socialbility, and almost are ready to discover the value of being connected to our work, to engaging problems, and to our minds as well. Designing to support these forms of connection, while recognizing that the process of learning how to use and direct our own mental states is a lifelong challenge, is difficult, but possible (“ease of use” doesn’t mean “an easy life”); and learning to do it will let us help people be not just better connected but better humans as well.

“the more you get up in front of people, the better you are at it”

Laura Vanderkam has a nice piece about learning to speak in public despite being an introvert. As she explains in the New York Times,

You’d think that book writing would be a solitary endeavor, a perfect career for an introvert like me. But, as it turns out, a big part of book writing is speaking. Blogging isn’t good enough. To sell books, you have to talk to people about your ideas.

So what has she learned? Continue reading

Speaking Notes 5: Your Space

When you’re giving a talk, your space should be your friend. Remember Frances Yates’ Art of Memory, and her discussion of the Roman orator’s memory palace? (Of course you do.) Your lectern, and the space in your immediate vicinity, should serve as a kind of memory palace, as well as a place that provides you with the cues and feedback necessary to do a great job.

We often pay very little attention to the space immediately around speakers, or the space around us when we’re giving talks. But people who do lots of talks organize their space as meticulously as they organize their desks. I first saw this in action when I was at IFTF and working with a futurist named Bob Johansen. Even before a conference call, Bob would arrange his notepad and pencil, drink, agenda, and other things so he could refer to them quickly and they’d be within easy reach.

At work

(More generally, one of the things I’ve learned from professional facilitators and conference organizers is that there is no detail too small to consider. These are people who think about the number of minutes it takes for the caterers to refresh the coffee, how an agenda should unfold over the course of a day, how much energy people will have in the afternoon, etc., etc. ad infinitum. It pays off.)

At work

I’d never thought of a call as something that demanded that level of physical preparation, but given how much time we spend on the phone (or on Skype) with clients, it makes perfect sense.

Today's rig

When I started doing radio interviews, the value of setting up your space that way– of treating it as an extension of your self– became super clear. Here’s a picture of my space during a satellite radio tour:

I’ve got the book right in front of me, and the coffee cup over on the left. I also have the PDF of the book on my iPad, which I can use to search quickly for a particular term or line from the book. On the stands, and on the board behind the iPad, are cards on which I’ve printed out answers to questions I would get regularly, or turns of phrase that I want have at my fingertips.

Bob Edwards interview

It may sound like cheating, but a good interview isn’t totally spontaneous; you don’t just throw off awesome turns of phrase, or little memorable anecdotes that listeners will remember. At least I don’t. In the moment, under the pressure of having to fill six minutes of Atlanta drive-time radio with an interesting conversation, I’m not going to trust to my memory the exact results of a survey done a year ago, or to use the phrase “weapons of mass distraction,” or that I could pivot from a question of the “technology, is it good or is it wack” variety to an answer about how we have choices about how we use technology; I’m going to have all that right in front of me.


And so it is with my talks: I find I do a better job if I take care to get onstage beforehand, look over the space, and arrange my stuff so everything is in a familiar, easy-to-reach place.

Here’s a picture of my lectern, from a talk I recently gave in Edmonton, Canada.

Obviously, it’s got my talk (which I print out, because paper never loses electricity, is light, and easy to annotate). But on the right you can see that I also have a small package of tissues and a few cough drops, because after 45 minutes your throat will start to dry out. Above my talk I place a post-it reminding me what time I should wrap up.

In the lectern below, you can also see the always-important water, easy to hand.

I also always try to have a screen on which I can see my slides, and the time.

Having that screen is very valuable, because it means you don’t have to keep looking behind you to make sure that the audience can see the correct slide.

And knowing what time it is, and how much time you have left, is crucial. As we all know, some academic speakers have a… casual attitude to time, and assume that the world can wait for them if they go half an hour overtime.

But in professional speaking going long is bad manners, and causes trouble to your hosts, especially if there are events (or classes) after you. You don’t want to put people in the position of playing catch-up because you went long– not if you want to be invited back, anyway.

Posts in this series:


Speaking Notes 4: Travel

Travel for professional speaking is different than for academic talks. For one thing, I’ve almost never been invited to give an academic talk by someone who wasn’t a friend. This means that academic talks often have a friendly, personal dimension to them (though if the wrong people show up for your talk, they can also have an ugly personal dimension as well).

Professional speaking, however, is far more mercantile. It’s not an economic exchange layered atop an intellectual kinship network. Your talk is a commodity; it’s purchased like a DVD or a long book, with a certain amount of attention to content and audience, but with the expectation on the buyer’s part that they know what they’re getting.

Reading Terminal Market

That means you’re there as a performer and a professional, not an old friend. This doesn’t mean you can’t become friendly with the people who invited you; in my case, I’m lucky to have had some really terrific people invite me to speak at their conferences or on their campuses. But it’s a professional relationship first and foremost. It’s a lot more like your relationship with your doctor than your college classmate.

What this means is that you’re “delivering” a talk in two senses. Obviously you’re getting up in front of a couple hundred (or a couple thousand) people and speaking.

But you’re also delivering yourself to the venue. And you should pay some attention to that.

While the arrangements are often physically quite nice– I’ve stayed in some excellent hotel rooms since signing with Lavin– it’s not personal. You do a lot travelling alone, eating alone, working in your room alone. This isn’t bad; but it’s just worth knowing.

While at first I found it a bit disorienting, I now appreciate this singular or solitary mode. Not having the distractions of being a tourist or having to catch up with people, or worse yet, being caught in one of those situations where your host’s sense of social obligation requires them to escort you around to museums or other places neither one of you really wants to see, lets me focus on the talk.

And after all, the talk is why you’re there.

The most important thing you can do to ease your travel is this:

Don’t have anything you need to do while you’re travelling.

First and foremost, this means, don’t write your talk on the plane.

I used to be one of those people who’d completely rewrite his talk the night before.

Working on tomorrow's talk

I did some of my best thinking on planes, and I’d show up at the venue with my talk on a jump drive, and a talk that looked like it had been run over by a truck full of Post-Its.

Working on the plane

But after I started working with Lavin, I realized that this wasn’t really productive. Sure, I might come up with some cool turn of phrase ten minutes before showtime, but it meant I was giving talks that were less polished, and often had some sections that were overprepared, and others (especially the conclusion) that were just sketched out.

Now, I’m giving versions of the same couple talks, which means I need to change them very little, and there’s very little incentive to try to come up with something completely new. Remember your audience wants to hear the version of your hit song that they heard on the radio, not your new acoustic swing-time interpretation.

Working on my talk

Plus, as my slides have become denser– that twenty seconds per slide rule, or whatever it is, is crap– I can’t afford to just wing it. A small number of people are able to do a good job speaking spontaneously, or working with notes that serve as a scaffold, but I want to make sure I hit my marks exactly.

So now, I freeze my slides several days before a talk, and while I go over my talk and make small edits while I’m on the road, I absolutely don’t make big changes the day before. At that point, and especially once your talk is loaded onto the presentation machine, you’re in Tim Gunn mode: you make it work.

(And don’t trust in your own ability to improvise. To paraphrase Chopin in the movie Impromptu, a talk should seem spontaneous; no one must know the desperate calculation that goes into it.)

Having your slides and talk all worked out well in advance makes an immense difference in the quality of your trip, and the quality of the talk.

For me, one unexpected benefit is that it means I’m much more relaxed, and rest better, when I’m on the road. I have plenty of work to do, but I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll finish the talk in time, and I don’t have to worry about getting enough sleep.

This may sound trivial, but to quote the line in the movies, you have One Job– ONE JOB– during this trip. You don’t want to blow it by getting too little sleep the night before.

So simplifying everything so you can deliver yourself to the venue, rested and ready, is essential.

It also means attending to the logistics of the trip well before hand.

For example, a few days before, make sure you know where the hotel is, where you’re speaking, and how to get from one to the other. Once you’re on the ground you want to be able to execute a plan, not struggle to figure out what to do. This will also help you travel light: the fewer pounds you’re carrying the better.

Since I spend a fair amount of time in the hotel, I now carry a change of clothes specifically to wear in the hotel: a pair of sweatpants, or flannel pajama pants, and a hoodie. Changing into these helps underline that I’m In For the Evening– no temptation to wander down to the bar– and it’s just more comfortable.

I’ve also gotten into the habit the night before of ironing my clothes, laying them out, putting business cards in my pocket, packing my bag for the talk and my suitcase for the trip. I don’t want to have to do anything the morning of my talk except review the talk.

My goal is to be able to oversleep terribly, wake up 5 minutes before I need to leave the hotel, and still walk on stage looking sharp.

Reducing the number of decisions you have to make, and the number of little things you have to do the Day Of, also leaves your mind freer to focus on the talk itself. But as should now be clear, everything you do before you leave and while you’re on the road should be in the service of the talk, and doing a good job.

Posts in this series:


Speaking Notes 3: Crafting Your Talk

There are several things I’ve had to learn while transitioning from giving academic talks to doing broader talks. Here are the big ones.

Don’t just read your papers

Lots of seminar talks and conference papers are just things people have published or written for publication, written aloud. Arguably there are seminars where this is okay. If speaker and audience share an assumption that part of the purpose of a seminar is to get feedback on a paper that’s bound for publication, for example, then reading a paper makes some sense.

DLD17 session "Rest!!!" with Arianna Huffington

But too often the result is not a talk in which the audience able to think both about the argument the speaker is making, and how it would read (which is a bit of a cognitive load). The result is a dull talk.

Simplicity doesn’t mean dumbed-down

I’ve never made a talk worse by making fewer important points, or by simplifying the story I’m trying to tell.


Too often, telling yourself that you’re presenting a complex multilayered story that really can’t be reduced to something clearer and simpler is a recipe for a talk that’s incoherent and overburdened. Talks that are so achingly brilliant they’re over your head, and talks that are incomprehensible because they’re poorly written, sound pretty much the same, and have the same impact on your audience– namely, none.

Further, the complexity that people might be able to handle in print– the sort that is manageable with paratexts and an ability to flip back and forth in a document– becomes unmanageable in a talk that they’re listening to. You need to apply a different kind of standard to popular talks.

Put another way, it’s better for your audience to remember one or two big points from your talk, than to forget five.

But if you know what you’re doing, two points are as many as you need to make.

Creating a talk that will be memorable– not just one that’s well-delivered, but one whose big points a listener can explain to someone else over dinner the next night, or one that both stands on its own and creates a desire in your audience to learn more– requires trading complexity for a specific kind of simplicity.

This is not the simplicity of a children’s story, nor is it the simplicity that comes from sacrificing evidence on the altar of a counterintuitive-sounding but ultimately conservative argument. It’s the simplicity that product designers and Zen gardeners strive for: the version that strips away everything that doesn’t matter, and works in a fashion that is clear and unadorned.


That kind of simplicity, as anyone who’s tried to create it, isn’t just achieved by using simpler words or talking down to your audience. It’s only achieved when you understand your subject so well you see its essence, and can describe it clearly. Audiences sense that.

Make your slides interesting

Never put words on a slide, and then read the words. Don’t even do bullet points. Use pictures.

People who are scared of public speaking fill their slides with text, then read the text. They rationalize it by claiming that these are really important points, different learning styles, blah blah; but I’ve never seen a speaker wow an audience by reading along with them.

The slide above has the largest number of words I ever use. Three words on a slide is usually too many. You can get away with two, if they’re short words.

Personally, I like single words (especially if they’re “found words,” from street signs, movie posters, and the like) that underline a point, or appear in a key phrase.

If a word appears onscreen, you need to actually say it; having a word visible sets up an expectation in the audience, a tension that only you can resolve. (It also very subtly reminds everyone who has the power here.)

The rest of my slides are single images, without captions.

I only use pictures I’ve taken myself. When you use your own images, you own your images and don’t have to worry about rights and permissions; it also means your talk is going to have a unified look and feel, a wholeness that will make it more compelling and convincing.

The fact that I tend to shoot things a little off-center, take lots of landscape and architectural pictures at dusk or in the evenings, and use either a really good digital SLR or Hipstamatic, means that my talks have a distinctiveness that they would lack if I was just pulling pictures off Flickr. (Lots of my photos also have bicycles at the edges or in the distance. Using several together creates a visual continuity, even if people aren’t entirely aware of it.)

Keep it simple

Don’t use fancy transitions, animations, or other tricks. Don’t even dissolve or swipe. Just go from one picture to another. If you have text, make it Helvetica. Helvetica is nice. Every computer can handle Helvetica.

Why? Because you want your talk to work on any presentation machine, no matter what. If it can handle electrons, it should be able to run your talk. Even if you have a high degree of confidence that the tech people at the venue will have exactly the machine you want, don’t tempt fate.

Posts in this series:


Speaking Notes 2: Working with an Agent

First and most important: if at all possible,

Get an agent

This can’t be overstated. If you think signing with an agency of speakers’ bureau is a luxury, or not worth it, think again.

What do agencies like David Lavin (where I’m signed) provide?

They have access to venues that you don’t know about, or could never get into. Lots of big conferences, or small conferences with big budgets, will look to an agency for a top-notch keynote speaker. If you’re putting a conference together, you don’t want to chase down keynote speakers, negotiate their travel arrangements, etc.; you want to hand that off to someone else. That someone else is an agency.

Agents will also ask for far larger sums of money than you’d ever get on your own. They know the market rates, they can make very well-informed guesses about how big a budget a particular client has, and they have the nerve to ask for several times what you think you’re worth. If you’re coming out of the academic world, you’re probably used to thinking that travel costs and $500 is a good deal. Agents take a cut of your speaking fee— 30% seems to be the norm— but 70% of what they can get you is still a LOT bigger than 100% of what you can get negotiating on your own.

Unless you have a bestseller, agencies offer a level of street cred that your unagented self does not have. Agencies guarantee a level of professionalism that other people might or might not have; they certainly have an interest in only representing people who know how to be professionals.

Agents also oversee travel arrangements, or work with travel agents and local coordinators to make sure you’re taken care of. They know your preferences, your frequent flyer account numbers, whether you’re allergic to down pillows, etc. It’s a lot easier than managing all that stuff yourself.

They’ll also serve as a conduit to the client, getting your needs and preferences on their agenda; they occasionally also serve as an insulator from really demanding or nervous clients.

But a relationship with an agent also forces you to be serious.

Having an agent signals to yourself and the market a degree of commitment that not everyone has. Anyone can condescend to speak in Davos or Aspen, or hang out with the cool kids. Only the pros will do a one-day trip to a regional conference in Davenport or Akron, and take it as seriously as PopTech or TED.

Every now and then I get to go to places that are really nice; most of the time, I’m going wherever the work is. You need to be able to say yes to these smaller, less glamorous venues, because unless your name is Malcolm Gladwell or Niall Ferguson, that’s where the business is.

Posts in this series:


Speaking Notes 1: Introduction

A couple weeks ago I got a request from an academic friend for some advice about speaking at a trade conference. It got me thinking about the differences between academic conferences and the kinds of events I’ve been going to in support of The Distraction Addiction, and my work as a facilitator and futurist.

Even though academics do plenty of speaking in public– lecturing the students, giving conference talks, doing invited colloquia– anyone who’s watched TED talks and gone to the AHA will know that there’s a huge difference between them.

Moving from one to the other is not impossible. Far from it: lots of polished, popular speakers are also academics of one sort or another. But they are different kinds of talks.

Keynote speaking is a profession, or at the very least a craft, with its own rules and expectations. What your client is hiring you to do, what your audience wants, and your role in an event, aren’t self-evident if you’re accustomed to the rituals and rhythms of academic conferences or invited scholarly talks.

This is the first of several posts about professional speaking. For anyone who’s interested in making the jump, here’s what I’ve learned, broken into several posts:

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!

Santa Catalina School on my talk

Courtney Shove, who took the pictures at my Santa Catalina talk, has a nice write-up of the event.

Santa Catalina

My own post about it is here.

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.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2019 Deliberate Rest

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑