Does This Deserve My Attention? | Beth's Blog

Does This Deserve My Attention?


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 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?


15 Responses

  1. Anita says:

    Just want to share my deep appreciation for this post! I think taking a walk is hugely important, especially for those of us who work from home and have no occasion to leave the computer.

    I like the simple reminder to breathe. And I’d love to look into some of the calming technology tool. Most of all, I REALLY appreciate the hopeful idea that we can be even more focused using tech, instead of constantly anxious and distracted.

  2. Beth says:

    Anita: Thanks for your comment. I used to completely avoid the technology solutions to willpower … but I have explored the mindful meditation apps and those are helpful. I think it comes down to both high tech and low tech solutions.

  3. I was thinking as I read this post about on of the tactics you describe to do with training: get up and move. Sitting still for long periods of time isn’t a natural thing to do.

    One of the messages I get when using MacBreakZ is to take a break – this Mac 0S X software ‘interruptas’ my computer use at predetermined interval (currently set for 30 mins). At each break I am prompted to stretch, and to walk away from my computer. I sometimes ignore or override the prompt, but mostly I find it a useful aide to my own efforts to reign in my attention.

    Even after all these years of being on the internet, I still find I get distracted. Please keep sharing any gleanings or insights you come across.

  4. Nerida Gill says:

    When I have a full task list for the day I use Pomodoro to keep me from being distracted. Like Stephen I sometimes ignore the 5 minute break after 25 mins when I’m in the zone. However, it usually helps to focus on the task but also to take appropriate breaks.

    Pomodoro also allows me to see how much I’ve spent on website development task too.

    It is a great tool for minimising distraction.

  5. Beth says:

    Stephen: Thanks again for pointing me to the excellent article in the Guardian. It was a wealth of new ideas for mindfulness.

    Nerida: I have heard of Pomodoro and while I don’t use it specifically, I have something similar. I use the 18 minutes a day. Here’s a write up I did a while back on the topic:

  6. Thanks for this very helpful summary, Beth! I hadn’t heard the phrase “calming technology” and I really like that. And I also completely agree with you that the capacity for mindfulness is an important skill for nonprofit professionals to develop. It impacts our individual and organizational effectiveness in a multitude of ways. About 10 years ago, I was part of a research initiative to explore contemplative practices in various professional sectors and learned so much about the potential of these practices… lots of resources on this page:

    I’ve been using the “Prod Me” widget for quite some time now on my Mac — I can set it to ring a chime at desired intervals of time to remind me to stop whatever I’m doing, get up from the computer, and take a short mindfulness break (which might mean stretching, doing dishes, or simply breathing!).

    I also take a ‘computer shabbat’ day one day a week, usually on Saturdays. I set up a vacation responder on my email, and turn everything off from Friday sunset until Saturday sunset. It feels so good to give myself a complete break from technology for at least one day a week… I’m in much better shape when I come back to it.

    These technology-based mindfulness apps are helpful, of course, but I find the best ‘technology’ of all is a daily sitting meditation practice. I really don’t think there is any substitute for having a consistent contemplative practice in one’s life — whether it is yoga, or meditation, or creating art, or gardening, or something else. That’s what truly gives me the foundation from which to be more aware of when I am getting swept away in a computer trance during the day, and when my effectiveness (as well as compassion!) is running thin.

  7. Thank you for this post. I love Jack Cheng’s term “Habit Fields” and often use the distraction chair to train myself and my children to use digital technologies mindfully. Here’s the link (from 2010) –

  8. Beth says:

    Christine: Thanks for sharing that link to the “Distraction Chair” I really like the idea.

  9. K.Suresh Rao says:

    Kindly see this YouTube video of 3.50 Minutes duration:

    It covers an extract of the conversation between Eckhart Tolle & Deepak Chopra. I happened to attend this event held recently in Carlsbad (near San Diego in CA,USA).

    I liked Eckhart’s “Mini Meditation”,(first 2.17 minutes), which perhaps could be an ideal coping method to take care of distractions.
    K.Suresh Rao

  10. This is interesting! I enjoyed reading your great post.Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have shared here.

  11. Great point of view on a very costly and old problem. Getting people to focus and manage distractions in their work life is one of the last, relatively untapped, productivity reserve. The advent of mobile devices and social media amplifies the the distractions. Any trick about being mindful and “aware” of your choice your are making about the use of your time, is valuable information, the high tech glass may be the thing of the future, but personally, I’ll stick with the post it!

  12. This is very beneficial information. Beth I hope you keep writing more blogs like this one. I appreciate you sharing this with the rest of us Beth.

  13. Ricky Cenci says:

    Hey, great web page but there is a issue whereby on occassion I get redirected to the main page whenever I view different posts in this blog.

  14. topdiablo3 says:

    Kindly see this YouTube video of 3.50 Minutes duration – See more

  15. […] how to train our attention is an essential nonprofit work place skill, especially for emerging leaders!    And, […]