Monday, April 08, 2019

"Learned Helplessness" from constant attention to your input stream (email, etc.)?

I'm trying out a 'new rule' for myself (cf. the Real Time with Bill Maher show on HBO). I frequently wake with some new ideas that I want to develop and write about, then let that good intention to do productive generative work be blown away by glancing at and being hooked by emails and text messages that are continually running in background on the MacBook Air that I use for all my writing. The morning becomes submerged in attending to an never ending list of piddly details. I start feeling increasingly helpless and defined by reactivity to unpredictable input streams - like the experimental dogs in Seligman's classic "Learned Helplessness" experiments. My new rule - which I already violated this morning, but only once - is to carry the good ideas I wake up directly into further thinking and writing about them, completely ignoring the emails and text messages that have accumulated over the night. Going offline makes me feel powerful rather than helpless. Only after a significant period of being generative rather than reactive do I go back to glance at the input stream online. What I find is a pleasant simplification: many of the items I would have reacted to now get deleted without reading!

These sentiments are echoed by Goldfarb's recent NYTimes piece on how making yourself inaccessible from time to time is essential to boosting one's focus and effectiveness. I want to pass on clips of that essay, which contains links to the work referenced.
A 2017 survey from the American Psychological Association found that being constantly and permanently reachable on an electronic device — checking work emails on your day off; continuously cycling through social media feeds; responding to text messages at all hours — is associated with higher stress levels.
This phenomenon of always being reachable is what Linda Stone, a former Apple and Microsoft executive, calls continuous partial attention. Unlike multitasking — juggling activities of similar importance that don’t require too much cognitive processing — C.P.A. is a state of alertness during which you’re motivated by the desire not to miss out on anything.
Ms. Stone, who gives lectures and consults on issues relating to technology and attention, describes C.P.A. as an “always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.” Being distractible — allowing incessant beeps, flashes and trills to shatter any semblance of concentration — contributes to a strained lifestyle, she said. Half-paying attention to everything means you’re not able to fully pay attention to anything.
This kind of task switching comes with a cost. It’s called attention residue, a term established by Sophie Leroy, a professor at the Bothell School of Business at the University of Washington. In a 2009 study, Dr. Leroy found that if people transition their attention away from an unfinished task, their subsequent task performance will suffer. For example, if you interrupt writing an email to reply to a text message, it will take time to refocus when you turn your attention back to finishing your email. That little bit of time of adjusting your focus — the residue — compounds throughout the day. As we fragment our attention, fatigue and stress increases, which negatively affects performance.

1 comment:

  1. Amen. I'm trying to figure out how to deal with this. I have stacks of books I want to read, but first I have to clean out my Inbox, and I don't even do texting.

    It's a waste of time. But how much time did we waste walking to the library to look up something that we could now find online in 5 seconds?

    Of course, we didn't get distracted by reading news accounts of recycling plastic water sachets into soccer nets in Ghana.

    If you come up with a solution, let us know.