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Dwindling Attention Spans, Technogluttony, and Three Tips for Living in the Present

Busy Florence Street - Robert A Murph

*Reader beware: This is a long post; especially long for a topic related to ADD. If you must, you may skip ahead to the part at the end where I list resources and steps to take to develop more of an awareness of the present. If you do, you will miss out on the why. Only you will know… Well, I will also know, thanks to Google Analytics. Only the strong should precede. What are you, chicken??

You’re sitting across from your friend or spouse as they begin to tell you about some strange event that happened earlier that day. For the first 30 seconds you listen to every word, staying right with the speaker.

But then suddenly, without intention, you begin to wonder if a promised email has been delivered to the iPhone sitting beside you on the living room couch or dinner table. By default you nod your head in agreement with the speaker, subconsciously picking up on and responding to non-verbal cues that the speaker is putting out.

A thought about email involuntarily leads you to wonder if anyone on Facebook has yet commented on the photo you posted of a particularly unique dinner or a cat wearing people clothing.

Your hand moves towards the device only to stop in realizing how rude this would seem. But you continue to think about it anyway.

The story you’re supposedly listening to is halfway through now and you tune in for a minute only to check out again when it occurs to you that you that the stove might be on, an assignment at work was left unfinished, or the check list from an evening of errands still has remaining items left unchecked.

You are now fully staring into space. Your mind has turned inward. You know something is going on around you but you could be in a trance. Your mental life is front and center, replaying the highlights of your day, the things you should have done, the fears and hopes you have for the future.

Your friend/partner gets to the end of the story and looks to you for a response or validation, partly suspicious that you have moved on from the conversation and care about something else more than what they are saying. The problem is, you couldn’t repeat back the master narrative if someone held a gun to your head. You utter, “Wow. That’s crazy. How did they take it?” You have a 50/50 chance that the story did involve something that went wrong for someone and now your gamble will either pay off or you will be found out. In a clear moment you realize the irony of how fully fixated you are now on the conversation.

The Greater Stimuli

I was diagnosed with ADD at an early age. I was a Ritalin kid and struggled for years with keeping present and keeping on task. I remember a teacher stemming his feet to “wake me up” out of my distraction or looking up from a test to realize I was lost in thought for 30 minutes and had to fly through the questions in order to finish.

Eight years ago I read a few books by the world’s premier ADD expert, John J. Ratey. He describes ADD not as the weakness that I was told but rather an evolved condition that equips the brain of individuals to seek out new and exciting means for stimulation. An often used, though imperfect, analogy is of the farmer and the hunter. The brain of the farmer is satisfied being in one place and taking on a repeated action. The brain of the hunter is only satisfied wandering, looking, and exploring new places to hunt.

The ADD/ADHD suffer is equipped with lower levels of the stimulating chemicals seratonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine that our brain uses to reward actions. And our brain is continually rewarding our actions. When I do dishes, finish a project, or got to the gym, my brain is continually rewarding me for the action. Think of this as a morphine drip every time you take on tasks. As Ivan Pavlov discovered with dogs and dinner bells, individuals will choose the action that provides the object they desire. In other words, my brain will reward me for taking on actions that result in my brain rewarding me.

Our minds, addictive by nature, in the presence of a less than satisfying stimulus will look for a new stimulus in order to get our “fix”. So when I am listening to a story that, for whatever reason, is less than interesting, my mind will have the tendency to wander.

Enter New Media and 24/7 Stimulation

I find it interesting to look at human invention through the lens of human nature. We truly create objects and actions the way we would want them. Yes, that seems a bit to obvious. But we create out of nature to serve or even create a need. For example, do we need 24/7 news channels? Does knowing that an event somewhere in the world at that moment impact my day to day life such that it requires immediate and in-depth coverage? No, but I am rewarded for it. Do I need to view the latest hollywood gossip streaming to my laptop all day long every day? No, but it can result in a reward.

Do we need 24/7 internet access? Before you think of people who do require this for their job, remember that this is a new invention that the infrastructure was built around, not the other way around. We created a system that will provide a stimulating effect, upon demand, all day, every day.

In many ways, this is great. We can connect with people who live thousands of miles away as though they are in the same town. We can keep track of world events and play a part in making the life of another a little better.

The internet has revolutionized so much of what we do. But as is the case with any change, there is always a cost.

The cost here is that our brains have gotten used to this continual steam of stimulation. Have you ever sat at a computer with the browser open and invented something to look up? You didn’t have to do something but doing nothing or very little felt unnatural so you made something to do. How hard is it to read a book when we are used to the shortened, abridged version of information being handed to us in bullet points

As an online marketer I know how important it is to create content that keeps someone fixed on a point of interest. I know that I have just seconds to give a visitor what they are looking for or they will move on to the next site or re-search in Google. I know that images can be used to distract but not distract too much, keeping the mind stimulated enough to finish the post.

Technogluttony

So what’s the downside? I don’t want to be the type to cry out DANGER with the advent of new technology. There is always a give and take. The good can be great. The bad is that what was once limited to just a portion of the population, ADD seems to effect nearly everyone now. We are, largely, over stimulated to some kind of mental obesity that I would like to call technogluttony. And it has side effects that can hurt our loved ones and keep us from developing the richer, deeper experiences that take time and hard work.

What Does This Mean for the Future?

There are a few options for us. In one scenario we may choose to go the way of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra who, coming down from the mountain like an Old Testament prophet, proclaimed that the era of the human was over and our very nature would have to change. What was to come next was the “overman”, or the next evolution: aka, what we are today will not be what we are tomorrow. There would be benefits of this change, but we would lose something in the process.

For example, in Japan the “celibacy epidemic” is gaining considerable interest in academic communities as youth, after years of technology driven relationships, are losing the ability to connect both physically and mentally with others. This is a serious change. Though extreme, we are all seeing signs of changes in our daily lives.

An alternative to letting this spin out of control is to put controls on our access. Our phones, computers, and 24/7 news cycles place constant access for new and stronger stimulants in our hands all day, every day. We have not adapted as a species in order to work with the long term impact of this technology on our brains. With intention, we could learn to put boundaries on our usage and train to bring back some of what we have lost.

Thats right, train. Think of the impact of the modern diet. When we eat too many calories we have to then work them off or deal with an uncomfortable condition. Walk through the snack isle at a grocery store and see how just how determined the human mind is to eat foods that will negatively affect us. The body is in best shape when we learn to eat within our means.

As is our minds.

What does mental training look like?

Training the Mind to Live in the Moment

I will not claim to be an expert in this field. I will, however, tell you what works for me. Over the past few years I have found these steps to have what I believe is a positive effect on my mind.

  • I recognize that I have a propensity for distraction
    I think of this as less an admission of guilt and more an awareness of being human. I am a person. I have the same problems that many people have. When this is admitted and even shared with others we have no choice but to take action or live in denial.
  • Cultivate an awareness
    I try to pay attention to what happens when I feel distracted. This often involves looking for the cues and the signs that I am about to float away to lalaland or feel compelled to check email, surf facebook, or just do something versus whatever is going around me. This also means developing a way of understanding what is urgent versus what is not. Not everything that comes across my phone needs to be handled then. This also means that I should give others the same space when I don’t get an immediate response.
  • Practice being present
    Four activities I’ve found help tremendously:

    • Reading: When I say reading, I don’t mean articles online. I mean books. I try to read anywhere from a few pages to a few chapters a day. This is a slower, more casual form of entertainment. It also gets the mind used to finding interest in longer narratives that take time to develop.
    • Exercise: Last year I joined a rock climbing gym. Though not for everyone, I find this exercise to be so enjoyable, both mentally and physically. I am never so present as when I am hanging by three fingers off a rock suspended in the air. My mind is fully engaged in the moment. Now here’s the kicker: if you want to learn to be present, skip the music. If you are running, look around you and see what goes by. Listen to your body and mind.
    • Meditation: I’ve been practicing Zen meditation for over a year now. Zen is defined as “a cultivation of an awareness of the present”. In other words, Zen is just about perfect for this situation. The first few sessions were difficult. Sitting for 20 minutes at a time is not easy. But the results speak for themselves.
    • Taking time away from the problem: I took three months away from Facebook and should have stayed away longer. I am trying, with my wife’s help, to designate time away from phones and screens in general. Creating space helps separate “me” from the device that my mind views as an extension of my self. It helps me understand that I don’t need these things. I only want them.

 

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The Limitation of Metrics: What We Miss When We Listen Only to the Numbers

I am a statistic. Really, I’m one thousand statistics in a number of studies. I am an American Caucasian (63%), male (50.1%), married (51%), living in California (12% of US citizens) , and exhibiting some degree of religious conviction (87%). I represent/am represented by a particular purchasing class. I vote more often for a specific party. I live in a downtown area in an apartment but drive places more times than not. I use my smartphone for just about everything and try to eat locally grown, organic foods.

One could build a relatively accurate depiction of my personality from the information stated above. A skilled marketer might even get me to open a few targeted emails or click through to a website.

But this is just one part of the full story.

Earlier today I sat in a coffee shop and worked from my MacBook Pro. I looked up at some twenty other people with a nearly identical computer participating in the same action. I started thinking about the situation and what it represented. We were a demographic, a statistic. We all probably worked in similar fields but different industries. And up to this point we might all be labeled the same. But we represented an operating system minority.

I’m a late adopter. I came to Apple begrudgingly after a long life with PCs. Tired of crashing hard drives on short term use products that are nearly worthless after two or three years of use, I decided to move on to the operating system of my iPad and iPhone.

And before you think this is an advertisement for Apple, know that I was an anti-MacHead for a number of years. The cult of Mac seemed obsessed with something I found to be inconsequential. “Its just a computer” I would scoff at friends who made the move from Windows.  Why spend extra? Windows is ubiquitous! Why trade out on the popular choice?

But then I bought my first iPhone, a clear upgrade from an early Android OS. The movement was smooth. The features were rich and thoughtful. There was an appeal to the object as much as to the system. I was never more than three clicks away from whatever action I wanted to take. My first iPhone was – and I feel very uncomfortable even saying this – a joy to use. Joy. Not fun, functional, or useful. It was those things. But it was also a joy to hold and use.

A few weeks ago I watched Jobs. I know many Apple fans disliked the movie for its exposure of Steve Jobs in all his deficiencies. But what the movie showed clearly was an obsession with usability and beauty. Apple computers are and have been designed with joy and delight in mind.

Joy is a difficult metric to track. As a marketer who uses an analytics platform daily, I can easily track repeat visitors. I know when a particular customer visits a website and how many pages they view. I can dive deeper in the data and look at their demographics and the type of content they find most interesting. I can see at what point in a video or survey they decide to bail and go somewhere else. And I can see when a  customer leaves to find interesting content through Google after a fruitless search.

This is all great information to have but is far form the whole story. What is missed in interpretive metrics is the intention, not the reason. The intention of the customer or website visitor directly implies a reason or desire floating around in their head for the consumption or use of something. Even the most pragmatic of us all will exhibit a purchasing bias when confronted with two or more products.

The problem is that the tech industry is often obsessed with data. Data is relatively easy (or very tricky!) to pull up and interpret. We can make assumptions and build stories out of data (I do this all the time). But it doesn’t tell you the story of the customer’s feelings.

I’m getting all hippie here, I know. But think of the last time you bought a car or computer. Remember that exciting feeling you felt when you first fired up the engine or pressed power? That rush is an emotion. Emotions guide and direct our actions. Emotions are the conduit for our decision making process, helping us simplify and filter through an array of input and choose an option. The object that can continue to delight and satisfy an emotional desire for the longest is the object that will be most likely replaced with the much the same rather than with a different product. The object that becomes just an object is easily and quickly forgotten or relegated to the pragmatic use bin and forever seen as just a means to an end.

An experience can be like a drug. Make the experience, not just the object, a joy and pleasure and you will not soon be forgotten. When was the last time you heard that one song or songs that drove you through your high school experience? That song is not just notes and words but emotion on demand. You could not forget it if you tried.

It is only when we look through a qualitative lens that we learn the intention of the customer. We can assume, we can interpret, but it is only through listening that we can truly hear the messages written in the subtext.

Andy Warhol is probably most famous for painting Campbell soup cans. When he approached this common, every day object, as many artists have before and since, he presented an object we have taken for granted. This object and design has an inherit beauty. The color, the shape, the design of the can were and are designed to convey meaning to the viewer. The objects have, as he described, lost their meaning. But the beauty is there. We receive emotion upon viewing and a marketer’s job is to tailor the presentation to create as positive an emotion as possible.

I feel something when I turn on my laptop. I have yet to pick it up and not feel a certain amazement at the beauty of such an object. My wife oohs when she picks it up and wants to move over to Apple as well. If we were judging Apple purely based entirely on ownership percentage metrics we could say that Apple is just a fad. Their products are just nice looking but the competition is more useful. If we wanted a computer that will never go out of date, we could assume, we should pick up a PC with exchangeable hard drives and upgradable memory, future proofing our “investment” for many, many years to come.

My assumption is that you can not measure joy or delight with metrics. It is mostly if not only through listening to the language, dynamics, and subtext of an individual and their culture that you can develop insights into the kind of information that will impact business success over the long haul. Metrics are ideal for measuring certain kinds of information. But businesses should listen to other insights as well, using both forms to determine an outcome.

Several years ago I became very interested in the use of Anthropology in business applications. I believe this is even more important than I did then. There are certain skill sets that lend well to different outcomes. An anthropologist, sociologist, or even psychologist will see a different world than the quantitative analyst. We don’t just need to listen to what a customer does, but what they say and mean. We need to learn their intention and hear the rich and valuable emotions that drive the decisions made.

 

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The Power of Observation

My wife and I were watching an episode of The Good Wife last week. Towards the middle of this episode character Will Gardner was hand writing a list on legal paper. Certainly not unusual. But what was odd is that while he held his pen with his left hand (there seems to be a disproportionate number of lefties in the show in general – accidental or by design?), he held it like he was right handed with his thumb wrapped around his index and middle finger. Then in an aerial shot the pen was in his right hand. But the way he held the pen was the same in both shots and very natural.

It turns out that the actor in mention, Josh Charles, is in fact left handed and writes with what is known as a closed web space handwriting style, common with right handed people. So why the strange aerial shot? Noticing an actor’s dominant hand is not designed to dismiss or point out a flaw but rather to raise a curiosity. What was the purpose of two different hands holding the same pen? What purpose or problem did this fix?

I recently started reading On Looking: 11 Walks with Expert Eyes, by Alexandra Horowitz. The book chronicles a series of walks she has taken around New York City with a collection of experts from geologists to calligraphers. On each walk she experienced a world around her that she was oblivious to previously, all while filling in the reasons from a neurological basis.

It seems that experts are experts at seeing one thing. In a hyper-specialized world we can only process so much. But to experience the same situation with new eyes is to, in a way, become more awake.

Interestingly enough the first expert she brings is her toddler. His height and underdeveloped attention made for a clever companion on a simple walk around the block. Kids learn to see and hear everything before learning to tune out some parts versus hearing others.

A baby might early on learn to ignore the sound of a news anchor on the screen but will clearly hear a mother’s voice.  Ms. Horowitz’ son wasn’t looking for street signs and shop logos but saw shapes all around him. That openness to stimulus placed him fully in that moment, focused not to an internal monologue or list of to-dos, but in the center of a moment looking at every gate and piece of trash and bird that came across his path.

Where I do not think attention to everything is possible – we are blessed and cursed with a limited ability to process stimulus – I do think there is something magical about seeing what is in front of us for what it really is. Sometimes its helpful and meaningful to tune out the monologue or shut off the constant music and simply notice what is around us. Even the most well walked stretch of pavement between two points is full of what we do not yet know.

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