Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be in New Zealand, leading a workshop on social media and I facilitated a module on mindful social media. It seemed very appropriate given that my host, Stephen Blyth, collaborated with Peter Sykes, CEO & Founder at Mangere East Family Service Centre and we held the workshop on a Marae. Peter greeted me at the airport and as I got into the car I noticed a copy of Rheingold’s book NetSmart in the back seat.
Yesterday, this tweet from Howard Rheingold, author of NetSmart got my attention! It is a simple, elegant way to train your attention while working online to keep mindful how you are spending your time. As he says in his book, your attention is one of your most available assets. Yet, we often squander it by not being mindful. Mindful online is defined as not just going into auto pilot to update your FB status or scan your Twitter stream but to consciously think about all aspects of your digital actions.
Rheingold’s low-tech technique, a post-it note on your computer monitor, is a simple and elegant way to help train your attention. During the workshop in New Zealand, we discussed different methods for being mindful and what might apply to our practice. Stephen Blyth wrote up this reflection from the workshop about mindfulness and points a recent Guardian post where Oliver Burkeman delves into ‘conscious computing’. The article showcases “Calming” technology – which is to use technology to help you focus or what he calls the “slow web movement.”
The article profiles the work of Alex Pang, a Stanford University technologist and author of the forthcoming book, “Distraction Addiction.” His work is focused on this question: What if there were a way to use the internet – and all our web-connected phones and tablets and laptops and games consoles – to foster rather than erode our attention spans, and to replace that sense of edgy distractedness with calm? According to the article, this question is motivating the embryonic movement known variously as “calming technology”, “the slow web”, “conscious computing” or (Pang’s preferred term) “contemplative computing”
Some points from the article that caught my attention:
- Rethinking that technology can only distract“Using some jujitsu to turn the agents of distraction into agents of serenity.” Describes some inventions like wearable sensors that deliver rewards (“calm points”) for breathing well while you work, developed by Stanford University’s calming technology laboratory; iPad apps to help you meditate yourself into a state of super-focused concentration; software that lets friends decide collectively to disable their smartphones for the duration of a restaurant meal; and scores of pieces of “zenware” designed to block distractions.” (Note: I created a list.ly with some useful Zen Apps)
- Points to Linda Stone’s pioneering work in the mindfulness online movement: Linda Stone was the first to write about about distraction and the need to breath while being online. Her work was the inspiration for Rheingold’s book (the mindfulness chapter). She coined a phrase “continuous partial attention,” to describe why we multi-task in an age of social media – not to get more done, but not to miss out. Here’s a recent interview with her in the Atlantic (by way of Rheingold)
- Some humorous, but real conditions that can occur from online distraction or addiction: “Paper Tweeting,” or scribbling supposedly witty wisecracks in a notebook as a substitute for the urge to share them online; sleep texting; and ”ringxiety.”
- Distraction by shiny objects is not new. Social media and mobile phones aren’t the first ever examples of “cognitive entanglement”, Pang’s term for the way we use technology as extensions of our own minds. Writing things in a notebook is entanglement! The problem is not the dependency on the technology but it is designed to make money for the creators than a focus on the user-experience. Distraction is still a problem and we need to need to find coping methods. These can wetware (training our minds) or software/hardware as the Pang advocates.
Bottom Line: What we need are techniques for exercising the muscle that lets you maintain control of your own attention, so that you can more frequently win the battle for your attention while trying to get work done on the biggest and best invention to date for distraction – the Internet. Glad that I have been researching, practicing, and doing training on this topic for nonprofits for a few years now because it is going to be a very important professional development skill set – and not just for social media managers.
Do you us mindfulness techniques like meditation, taking walks, or other ‘low tech” methods to help you focus or do you rely on “calming” technology tools? Or a combination?