Paying too much attention to the wrong things

In Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold gives us straightforward advice on how to pay attention to our attention while online and how to subvert the almost-paralyzing fears that haunt us when we are disconnected from our channels of constant communication.

I’ll start with how to pay attention. Both at home and at work, I have two monitors open at all times. It’s critical that I have two screens because I need to constantly compare and cut and paste from documents. But this also allows me to have more windows open and on view at one time. Last summer, when I was doing some freelance work for a company that required lots of early-morning conference calls, I would find my attention drifting from the screen I was supposed to be looking at to my email, shopping sites, bill-paying sites, you name it. I had thought that it was possible to pay attention while having several windows open at once, but it seriously distracted me from the conference call in front of me, and I had to stop trying to do that so I could focus 100 percent attention on the project at hand.

Likewise, when we are always checking our email, phone, etc., we can end up on a hamster wheel of simply responding to emails and putting out fires rather than thinking strategically or making long-term plans. We need time, space and quiet for this kind of thinking, as Rheingold posits in his book.

I have found that the Pomodoro Method that he describes works quite well for when I sit at my desk for long periods, especially when writing and editing long documents. I allow myself to work on something with total concentration for 30 minutes, then I reward myself with checking my email and phone and perhaps Googling something for 5 or 10 minutes. That is certainly less distracting than refreshing my email every few minutes, and it cuts down on my fear of missing some critical email that requires an immediate response and action.

In an office, distractions and disruptions are legion. I work in a cubicle, so I don’t have much of a choice if a coworker drops by with a question or request; I have to stop what I’m doing and respond to that person. I was alarmed to read in Net Smart that it takes up to 30 minutes to recover from such drop-ins, because if the visit was about a request, you start thinking about what you need to do about it while you continue what you had been working on.

I thought it was particularly striking when Rheingold talked about the woman who realized that she was holding her breath every time she opened and read her email. I wondered why we are so afraid of both getting email and not getting email. I think it’s, in both cases, that we fear we’re missing something; in the case of getting email, someone wants something of us–and we better get it to them sooner rather than later. What if we had opened that email a couple of hours later? In the case of not getting email, we wonder if that absence means that the other person didn’t get out email or just chose not to respond. Or perhaps we’re deliberately being kept out of the loop at work. I think this is due to the fact that email is not face to face, and we just don’t have access to the facial expressions and body language that would give us the context we need in order to not worry.

I find that, if I’m in a series of meetings and away from my desk (ie, away from my cell phone, my work phone, my work email and my personal email), I get distracted and antsy to return to my desk and check and make sure I didn’t miss anything. It’s the same at home; if I leave home, I am truly disconnected from email because I’ve never enabled it on my cell phone, because I don’t want to be tethered to it. The first thing I do when I get home is to check my email.

In other words, as much as I try not to be a slave to technology and constant communication, it takes up way too much space in my brain. I know I’m not alone in this “hyperchecking,” particularly after reading Net Smart. Has anyone found any techniques that have worked to counter this hypervigilance and achieve a healthier relationship with technology?

Posted on October 18, 2015, in Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Great post! I related to much of what you have effectively summarized from Net Smart and added to. Thank you.

    I go in and out of using Pomodoro and, like you, find it useful when I do. Here are a few other things I’ve done this past year that have helped me stay more focused:

    + I set up an appointment on my calendar to work on a project.

    + I turned off my email notifications. Instead, I put a reminder in my Todoist app to check it about every two hours.

    + I’ve recently been closing all other apps except the one I currently need to do my work.

    + I have been know to book a meeting room to work. The change in venue just helps me focus sometimes.

    I now have an office, but I worked in a cubicle for most of my career. If your co-workers are up for–and this can be fun–everyone come up with a way to let everyone know your “door” is closed. One person I knew had a little sire (without the noise). He would put it on the top of his cubicle wall and turn it on. We knew he needed to focus. Another person used a peg like you see at those Brazilian restaurants where if you want meat brought to the table you turn the green end of the peg up and if you want the server to stop bringing meat you put the red side up. Good stuff.

  2. I find that paying bills online using my bill pay app while driving in on my morning commute keeps me from doing that one at work. For social media at work, I think the best approach to just stop caring where your friends are and what they are having for lunch. #dontcare. The drop in co-worker will usually go away within 5 minutes if you refuse to make eye contact and continue writing e-mails or finishing up that last document. For all the other distractions, I try to manage all the necessary details and schedules before leaving the house, so that everyone else can self-sustain for at least 8 hours. This leaves the rest of my work day to actually work and message my lover; the only two responsibilities I need to consistently manage while physically at work. I hope this helps.

  3. I should add, that since I only have to show up in a physical location for work about 3 or 4 times a month, it does make this a bit easier for me. If I had to show up 20+ working days a month, it would be much harder.

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