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Time & Attention

"Zerstreutheit" and the Attention Management Cure

Linda Stone: Is it Time to Retire the Never-Ending List?

Linda Stone -- who coined the phrase "continuous partial attention" -- makes a thoughtful distinction between managing time and attention, deflating the misconception that making long lists and then overscheduling your day can be a bulwark against distractions, interruptions, and the crippling feeling of being overwhelmed.

In this recent blog entry from the Huffington Post, Stone talks about a pattern she's noticed from talking with people about how they think about and plan their day.

What did surgeons, artists, and CEO's have in common? Most of them reported that they managed both their time and their attention. In surgery, in the studio, and in the time carved out to think through strategies and issues, these professionals reported shutting down the devices and endless inputs (email, phone, interruptions), at scheduled times, and claiming those moments to focus. In almost every case, these professionals reported experiencing "flow" (a la Csikszentmihalyi) in their work.

[HuffPo link via Boing Boing]

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Email Insanity & the 0.001 Challenge

Via a Toot by Jeff Atwood comes this thoughtful post by Tantek Çelik on how email is no longer working for him. His first reason is a biggie:

1. Point to point communications do not scale.

All forms of communication where you have to expend time and energy on communicating with a specific person (anything that has a notion of "To" in the interface that you have to fill in) are doomed to fail at some limit. If you are really good you might be able to respond to dozens (some claim hundreds) of individual emails a day but at some point you will simply be spending all your time writing email rather than actually "working" on any thing in particular (next-actions or projects, e.g. coding, authoring, drawing, enjoying your life etc.)

This is one reason I'm getting attracted to using Get Satisfaction as a way to expose help issues to a large group of helpers and helpees (BTW, we're just getting started on GS -- FAQs and more will be coming soon). I'm also realizing that this is why I (and Jonathan Coulton and probably you) struggle with holding up dozens of one-on-one conversations -- it locks up your attention and its fruits in thousands of inaccessible alcoves. And truly, that does not and will not scale.

But, y'know, as I read Tantek's post, alongside his "Communication Protocols" notes, I found myself returning to a pet theory that I've been too embarrassed to lay out in a real post. But what the heck, I'll capture some notes and you can tell me what you think:

I suspect that email encourages people to act insane.

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A Day Unplugged: Frenzied Blackberries vs. Kwai Chang Caine?

I Need a Virtual Break. No, Really. - New York Times

In yesterday's New York Times, Mark Bittman wrote an entertaining and thoughtful article about realizing that his need to stay wired, in-touch, and updated was really starting to eat into him. His headslap moment came on an international flight, as he realizes "the only other place I could escape was in my sleep." He goes on to talk about the difficulty of maintaining even a single day of "Sabbath" from electronic communication and media:

I woke up nervous, eager for my laptop. That forbidden, I reached for the phone. No, not that either. Send a text message? No. I quickly realized that I was feeling the same way I do when the electricity goes out and, finding one appliance nonfunctional, I go immediately to the next. I was jumpy, twitchy, uneven.

But, eventually, he settles in and starts to enjoy things that would never appear on his radar screen on a wired day:

I drank herb tea (caffeine was not helpful) and stared out the window. I tried to allow myself to be less purposeful, not to care what was piling up in my personal cyberspace, and not to think about how busy I was going to be the next morning. I cooked, then went to bed, and read some more.

GRADUALLY, over this and the next couple of weekends — one of which stretched from Friday night until Monday morning, like the old days — I adapted.

Eventually (natch), he returns to the wired world. So it goes.

I liked that this piece was written from a personal perspective, which, to my mind, is the best (and, often, only) place to start any kind of experiment around hacking time and attention. And, I do really like the idea of periodically accepting (enforcing?) days without media and wires. Truly, you'll never realize how difficult this can be until you really make it happen. But, as Bittman notes, once you get over the initial crash, you can see a striking contrast in what your life could look like. Good stuff.

But, like a lot of pieces on wired overstimulation, this one comes close to conflating the axis of "work" with the axis of "electronic media." Which, in my opinion, is an unwholesome confusion to abide, even just in appearance -- especially since it could be seen as blaming inert matter for our problems, while allowing us addicts (and the culture we've permitted ourselves to grow accustomed to) to get off way too easy.

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Vox Populi: Reasons to Quit

I have a lot of trouble keeping track of what I'm supposed to be doing. It's not that I necessarily have trouble prioritizing my tasks or scheduling things - I mean I do, but that's not the main problem.

The main problem is that I've got too many things I really need (want) to do - too many long-term projects with potential - and I'm never exactly sure when they're a few weeks away from a grand payoff and when they're just wasting my time.

I suppose this is a crisis of faith.

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Meeting Tokens, for creating time scarcity

My pal, Mike Monteiro, is making good on his idea to try giving his team Meeting Tokens.

'Meeting Tokens' by Mike Monteiro

Previously mentioned in this post about re-creating scarcity and, in more detail, in my IDEO talk.

Can't wait to hear how it goes. I love me some scarcity.

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Technology for smarter ignoring

Cory Doctorow has a short piece in Internet Evolution called "The Future of Ignoring Things" that really resonated with me. Excerpt:

Take email: Endless engineer-hours are poured into stopping spam, but virtually no attention is paid to our interaction with our non-spam messages. Our mailer may strive to learn from our ratings what is and is not spam, but it expends practically no effort on figuring out which of the non-spam emails are important and which ones can be safely ignored, dropped into archival folders, or deleted unread...

Figuring out what you can afford to ignore in life is starting to seem like an art form to me. Since failure to filter incoming stuff properly over time has consequences way beyond annoyance, I'm starting to think that getting it right may be another one of those emerging knowledge worker skills.

It's definitely one I'm working on (and struggling with).

[via: BB]

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Field Reports: Guerrilla Office Tactics

I've started collecting stories -- some of which may be entirely apocryphal tall tales -- of the purported lengths to which people are going to filter noise and to ensure that their time and attention aren't ceded to bad ideas, thoughtless people, or garden-variety time burglars.

Here's a few of the more novel ones I've picked up. I'd also love to hear your favorites from amongst the cheats, tricks, and squirrely rules you've heard about:

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Vox Pop: Re-creating scarcity

I have a friend who told me he was thinking about giving his project managers a weekly pile of chips that could be redeemed for person-hours in meetings. So, to schedule firewalled, group face-time, the PM would need to cough up the equivalent number of tokens from her pile. Thus, one, long, all-hands meeting might require the whole week's stack. While, fewer, shorter meetings with smaller groups made the pile go further.

It was just an idea, and I'm pretty sure he never implemented it, but I think it's a fascinating concept. Why? Because I love the idea of re-introducing scarcity into systems that lack boundaries.

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An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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