Words: Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Author: The Distraction Addiction, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less
Illustration: Tim Bradford
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang began thinking about contemplative computing while a visiting researcher in the Socio-Digital Systems Group at Microsoft Research, Cambridge. The concept is about learning to use information technologies in ways that help you be more focused and mindful, and protect you from being perpetually distracted. Here he shares five key steps to the concept.
Technology as tools
Distraction is as old as mankind itself. We have been using tools for millions of years but what’s new is our capacity as humans to use technology in ways that extend our cognitive ability. Our brains are very good at treating technologies as tools: as extensions of our own bodies. An example of this is phantom cell phone syndrome, where you feel your phone is buzzing in your pocket even though it isn’t there. We need to realise that when our relationship with technology doesn’t work, it’s not because of us; it’s because the technology is badly designed.
We now live with technologies that are designed to intentionally take the natural facility that we all have and redirect it for other purposes, and companies often set defaults in ways that amplify the distraction. On Facebook Messenger, it encourages you to turn on notifications; on Netflix, TV episodes are queued up to begin automatically at the end of the last episode – technology companies are fighting for your attention.
Observe your behaviour
So, we need to be more mindful about our relationship with technology and recognise the deep ways in which it affects us, which will then help us to notice the ways in which that relationship can go wrong. Being more contemplative about technology is the first step to being more contemplative with technology. For example, consider how using your phone affects your breathing and posture; we tend to hunch over and hold our breath while waiting on a message.
Protect your attention
On a technological level, phones are great at connecting us; however, on a social level they don’t discriminate. As mentioned, the white list turns phones into devices that help protect our attention. I would also consider removing social media apps from your phone – save blogging and tweeting for when you have time. Contemplative computing can help you become more attuned to what the benefits of technology are.
A Digital Sabbath
Switch off all digital devices one day a week. As our bodies appreciate periods of high-intensity exercise and periods of rest, so too do our brains benefit from deep focus, concentration and sociability with periods of disconnection. The mental phenomenon of mind wandering – of being able to take your hands off the steering wheel of cognition and let your mind do what it wants – is amazingly valuable.
For more on this topic, read Alex’s feature on fighting digital distraction
About the author
As well as an author, Alex is a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a Silicon Valley consulting and research firm. Alex’s most recent book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, is available now. His website is www.deliberate.rest.
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