Tag Archive | attention

Attention is What Buys You Happiness

In my research into the art of cigar smoking (yes, I do lead an interesting life; cigars are tax-deductible) there was one particular conclusion that I came to in regards to the portrayal of cigars as tokens of power.

I mean, that is part of the allure of cigars, as portrayed in popular culture: they portray power. Most of the time people think this is related directly to the idea of money, and it’s true: cigar smoking is not a cheap hobby, especially nowadays.

But there’s a problem with that simplistic correlation: it falls apart pretty quickly when you look at it. Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” uses cigars as a measure of power, but he’s certainly not rich. Wolverine classically is portrayed as having a stogie in his mouth, but he’s not a wealthy character. In reality, for every Rush Limbaugh smoking a stogie there’s a Ché Guevara.

So why are cigars about power, if it’s not about wealth?

Attention: The True Currency of Power

It’s not about money, I realized. It’s about the ability to pay attention. See, that’s one of the biggest differences between cigars and cigarettes: cigarettes tend to feed a mindless addiction, whereas a cigar requires attention to enjoy it. So if you have a cigar, you are saying: Regardless of whether I’m about to have a gunfight, storm the beaches of Normandy, whatever, I’ve still got enough attention to spare that I can enjoy this luxury.

Money is mistaken for power because it can sometimes purchase you enough slack in your life to be able to pay more attention to the things you enjoy – if you’re smart enough to use that slack for that purpose.

The problem is that people (myself included) often mistake the appearance of “more time” as an opportunity for “more productivity” rather than “time to enjoy life.” When I was in London once I commented on how intense and angry people seemed. A friend who was there said “Yes, it’s a trap: people who want to live in London are always stressed because they have to work so hard to be able to afford to live in London.”

The Wisdom of My Daughter

My oldest daughter fell into a similar trap last year. She was trying to afford an apartment for her and her son, and it meant working two jobs – which of course also meant that she didn’t have time to enjoy either the apartment or time with my grandson, and when she did have time at home she was often trying to catch up with sleep.

This year, though, she has one job, and is relying on help from friends and relatives to provide a living space. The result is that she gets more time with her son, and as she told me recently, “Sure, we don’t have much money to do stuff – but we have time, and we hang out at playgrounds and stuff. We’re just happier this way.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder, because she’s figured out something that it took me decades longer to figure out. Especially when it comes to kids, attention is the irreplaceable currency, but that’s only because their growth and change is so much easier to see.

The reality is that it applies to every moment of our lives: there are no do-overs. The luxury to choose where you give your attention is one of the most precious gifts we have, whether we choose to spend it on ourselves or others.

And by spending her attention wisely, my daughter has found a greater measure of contentment in her life. She’s helped me remember something, too, and that’s what I want to share with you as this weekend starts off:

What can you pay attention to that brings you joy? That makes you happy? Where is that thing that you love that you can give a bit more attention to?

And what do you think will happen when you do?

Maybe this should be the weekend where you find out…

A Week Without Email on My Phone

distractionWell, it’s Monday. I did it. A week without email or twitter access on my phone (the two things I check most compulsively). Nobody else said they were going to try it, but I took the plunge anyway. Here’s a few of my thoughts and consequences:

  • Remember that sinking feeling that we got when I first mentioned it? Goes away. Really fast. As in, I’m sitting here now trying to remember what I was worried about.
  • The world didn’t end. Not even once. There wasn’t one message the entire week that couldn’t wait until I had time to go on my iPad or computer and check or answer it.
  • I had access – as noted above, my iPad and laptop still had email (I even left the latter home for the weekend while we went to Michigan to see friends).
  • I have “check e-mail” muscle memory. My phone was near me when we were watching tv; at one point I picked it up, turned it on…and realized I was about to check email. Except there was no email on the phone, so I sheepishly put it back down. This happened more than once, and I find myself wondering when it will stop.
  • I didn’t get bored, but I tended to look at things that either were not emotionally charged or work-oriented, like Instagram, Pinterest (happy pictures!) or reading books through Scribd (I LOVE SCRIBD! Do you have SCRIBD? Why not? Click and get SCRIBD!)
  • That is, mostly not emotionally charged. I also discovered a resurgence of an old habit: news addiction. I scrolled through news stories much more, and that’s a habit I need to nip in the bud.

Now, for those of you who are thinking that “it’s fine for you, Gray, you obviously aren’t as urgently needed via email as I am!” you’re probably right. There were exactly two times – today, in fact – that I tried to pull up email and send it – to the person sitting across from me at lunch.

You know what happened when I couldn’t? I talked to her instead, telling her what the email would have said. I saved her from having to click a little extra, I reduced eyestrain, I increased oxytocin through human interaction.

On the other hand, as Natasha and I were waiting for a movie to start, I realized I had a client that might have sent me a graphic for a publication I’m designing. I went through the hoops and such to try and restore email to my phone. You know what? It didn’t really work – not only did the apps not restore automatically, by the time I got a phone browser to actually look at my account, I had realized that even if they did send the graphic, I couldn’t do anything with it right then.

Incidentally, they still haven’t sent it. Waitasec…no. I’m resisting the urge to check a different tab on the browser and see if they did.

See how easy it is?

Will I put email back on my phone? I think not. I think, now that our KonMari process has given our home the spaciousness we wanted, it’s time to take the “unhurried” part seriously, and this…this feels like a first small step in that process.

How about you? Now that you know it’s not that scary…are you going to try? C’mon; it’s only for a week…

I’m still putting these posts on YouTube, also. If you like them, or have suggestions, please let me know in the comments here or there!

The Problem with Loving Your Work

This is usually what the inside of my brain looks like.

Not a weeping angel. A workaholic ADD angel.

No, this is not another “Should you do what you love?” post. I promised that I’d said the last word I would say on that. Rather, consider this a cautionary tale.

The last few days as I’ve been working at home I’ve had a few of my long-time hobby projects turn into full-fledged moneymakers. Suddenly things are much more busy, and I’m planning out videos and laying out books and making scheduled plans for things – it’s downright exhilarating, especially when it’s backed up by a bottom line that is getting further and further into the black.

The Problem

Thing is, I get to the end of a morning, for example, and realize that yes, it’s time for lunch – but I don’t feel like I’ve done any real work. I’ve been writing and recording and editing and such, but not for a “real” boss – no, I’ve been doing it for myself. And therefore I don’t deserve a lunch break, because I haven’t gotten “work” done.

I literally have to stop and go over, step by step, what I’ve been doing as well as the concrete ways it is profitable in order to feel justified in taking a break.

It’s worse at the end of the day, when Natasha asks me if I’m going to “keep working.” I’m having fun with what I’m doing; is it really work? I think perhaps I would benefit to recall my days working at Montessori schools, where they used the following definition:

Purposeful activity is called work. Montessori observed that children learn by engaging in purposeful activity of their own choosing. When children can choose what they do, they do not differentiate between work and play.

But what I need to remember is that this activity was within a “work cycle“:

A basic work cycle begins with choosing an activity, doing that activity, returning the activity to order, and then experiencing a sense of satisfaction…This sense of satisfaction, which may last a few seconds to a few minutes, helps motivate the child (and adult) to choose the next activity, thus creating another cycle of work…

Is it really ever too late to benefit from this kind of a mindset? Can we create our own purposeful environments to get that “sense of satisfaction”? What happens when “work is play for mortal stakes“, as Frost would put it? Do we all just keep working until we collapse of exhaustion?

Because that’s the direction I’m headed…

use security to protect your attention

Scary Thoughts on the Road

Last week I talked about the idea of a “Notification Free” week, when you could try to be less distracted by all the beeps and buzzes of the many apps. As promised, I shut down all the notifications on my phone and my iPad and went silent. That meant when people tweeted about me, I didn’t know it; I didn’t get the updates on mail; my phone didn’t tell me when apps updated, and my iPad didn’t let me know there was a new issue of GQ available.

Did it make a difference?

FOMO Strikes Back

At first the only real difference that I could see was that I kept checking the apps themselves – since I didn’t know about the updates, I needed to check them. Like Joel from Buffer, I found that I was the one who interrupted myself with incessant checking.

But the Fear of Missing Out slowly subsided, helped by two factors. First, I spent several days in Vancouver B.C. teaching, performing and training with a Japanese artist. I don’t have cel service in that country. It means that my interactions with the social internet are limited to the availability of wifi.The long breaks between these oases of connection helped to wean me off of that craving. In some ways, traveling to Canada was like a trip to a rehab center, where they slowly taper you off of your addiction to whatever is consuming too much of your life.

But the second reason actually kept me even from logging into those public wifi centers. Simply put, it was fear.

Scarier Than Fiction

You know in all those suspense thrillers or crime procedurals where the computers all work all the time, and instantaneously find the information needed by the protagonists and villains? You never have blue screens of death or spinning wheels of doom and whatever securities the high-end target has in place is easily overcome by the erstwhile hacker typing away at her keyboard in a coffee shop.

We pay a price in security and privacy for the fun of cameras and the cloud. Image Courtesy Vincent Brown.

1984 Is Starting to Look Charmingly Naive

Totally unrealistic fiction, right? Well, yes, except for that last part. According to this article in Medium, it’s pretty remarkably easy for a hacker to get all kinds of information through open networks such as you find in coffee shops. More than that, they can also put information onto your phones.

In less than 20 minutes, here’s what we’ve learned about the woman sitting 10 feet from us: where she was born, where she studied, that she has an interest in yoga, that she’s bookmarked an online offer for a anti-snore mantras, recently visited Thailand and Laos, and shows a remarkable interest in sites that offer tips on how to save a relationship…We try another trick: Anyone loading a website that includes pictures gets to see a picture selected by [the hacker]. This all sounds funny if you’re looking for some mischief, but it also makes it possible to load images of child pornography on someone’s smartphone, the possession of which is a criminal offense.

Given the proliferation of privacy threats out there, all of the sudden having a supercomputer in your pocket is less an asset and more a vulnerability.

Then again, it doesn’t have to be something as big as a hacker. It can be someone looking over your shoulder as you type in that four digit passcode, and boom, they’re in your phone. Those celebrities who had their phones hacked recently didn’t have hackers playing with code; rather they had people who had researched them gain access through password recall mechanisms that functioned exactly as they’re supposed to.

After reading the article, I took a couple of precautions. I changed my passcode on my phone and iPad to longer, ten-digit numbers. I looked for a VPN (that’s Virtual Private Network) client that might help secure my browsing (still looking, by the way).

Then things got worse.

Here to Help You

While I’m certain I turned out more liberal than many of my close relatives are comfortable with, there are some situations where I am as conservative as the rest of them. One of those is privacy; what is written or stored on my computers is mine, and I am very grateful for the fourth amendment protecting from illegal search.

Recently there was a court ruling that cel phones may not be searched without reasonable cause – meaning that if an officer pulls someone over for speeding, they do not have the right to look at recent text messages or status updates on a phone. In addition, even if they do grab your phone, they do not have the right to demand that you unlock it. They can guess, of course, but another security precaution I take is that my phone will delete all information if more than ten attempts are made to guess at the security code.

Then Michael Knight (yes, that’s his real name), a security expert friend of mine from the U.K., told me about a little loophole that I’d not known about.

One of the reasons I did not mind so much about the longer pass codes is because I have the nifty little biometric sensor on my phone. That meant that I didn’t have to actually put in the code – just pressing my thumb to the button would unlock the device.

Guess what? While the Fourth and Fifth Amendments protect me from being forced to reveal my security code, my thumbprint is not similarly protected. So I can have everything encrypted and locked away with complex codes…and they are legally able to force me to use my thumb to give access. It’s similar to the way that governments are legally able to seize and search your hard drive on your computer when you cross a border.

Security Through Naivety

If all of this seems a bit tinfoil hat to you, I can understand. It really may not affect you. However, not only do I want to protect my information, but I also have the records and personal stories of several clients on my laptop. It is ethically my responsibility to keep that from going anywhere other than where they would like. It’s why my laptop now uses encryption for all data, as well as a passphrase to access it. It’s not the strongest in the world, but according to experts it’s pretty durn good.

The tin foil has an additional silver lining, though, which is why you might want to try making your device more secure even if you feel no risk. I’ve found that since I can’t use the fingerprint sensor on my phone that I’m less inclined to want to type in all those numbers. As a result, I only check my phone when I actually intend to find out something – never on a whim. It has meant I’m more engaged with the world around me, and along with the lack of notifications I have found that the world seems a bit less noisy.

It gives me more room to identify the urgent, but more to the point, it gives me the space to enjoy the silence.
I’d invite you to try it, maybe just for this week. The silence? It’s pretty nice.

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control your notifications

Signal to Noise

What demands your attention?On Friday we talked about how it is a misnomer to think that the urgent and the important cannot – or do not – coexist for all of us. I mentioned that the real problem was differentiating between the urgent and the noisy.

“Noise” is a powerful word – and it’s different than sound. We rely on sounds to let us know things are going well – such as the sound of a car engine. The first time I rode in a hybrid and the engine shut down while we were still moving I was unnerved by the lack of noise – something must be wrong! In fact, there are “minimum sound requirements for hybrid and electric vehicles” to keep pedestrians safe when crossing the street. Similarly, when you hear that extra grinding sound when you put on the brakes, you know it’s time for a visit to the repair shop.

Both of those sounds were signals – that is, they convey useful information about the environment. The car is running. The brakes need fixing. At the same time, though, there is a lot of noise going on that is not conveying useful information – the birds outside, the wind blowing, the radio playing music. Not that the music isn’t entertaining, which, yes, is a kind of useful – but it isn’t necessarily conveying information. In fact, the entertainment may actually be hiding the information you need – which is why turning up the radio so you can’t hear the grinding brakes is probably not the best strategy.

Your Personal S2N

Part of separating the truly urgent things from the noise in your life comes with your electronic presence. There are many techniques for it – “Inbox Zero”, choosing an email-checking schedule, “analog time” (when you don’t use anything electronic). One of the founders of a powerful social media tool called Buffer has his own strategy: the Zero-Notification Challenge.

Joel’s idea was to simply turn off all the notifications – aggressively called “push” in the Apple iPhone world – on his phone. No more “You’ve got mail” tones, no twitter updates, no Sports or News flashes, no Facebook likes except when he chose to look at them.

I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look.

When I read about this last week I was intrigued, and in my gung-ho way I went to try it out. Then I realized that I was working a conference that would have many social and organizational demands…and so I simply shut off most of the notifications. I suspect the organizers are grateful, since it let us pull off a wonderful event.

All Things in Moderation

Perhaps “zero” is a bit of overkill. I know that while I’m good at “inbox zero” (emptying my email inbox) I also tend to compulsively check it in case more emails have cluttered up my box – and that means I check my email more, not less.

Similarly, I found that while I don’t have as many beeps and flashing letters on my phone, I also tend to impulsively check twitter and my messages to see what I might have missed. At least it makes me more aware of what social media outlets I spend my time on, and helps me figure out where I can better control my focus in the future.

That’s the challenge for this week’s practice: try turning off most, if not all, of your notifications. At the very least, take a look at what your devices are trying to tell you and make it a conscious decision. And as always: let me know how it goes in the comments!

There are two types of people: One strives to control his environment, the other strives not to let his environment control him. I like to control my environment – George Carlin

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the true cost of distraction

Paying Attention

Over the weekend I had one of those epiphanies. One of those moments that changes your perspective on things, that makes you suddenly see the elephant in the room.

Specifically, it’s the metaphor of the elephant as being the bulk of our subconscious psyche – our emotions, our habits, our desires. It’s an example used by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He also posits a rider perched on top of the elephant symbolizing the conscious mind, riding this massive, powerful animal. If it were a contest of strength, the elephant obviously wins, right? The rider can’t use force to make the elephant go somewhere. The entire process of self-improvement is figuring out ways to persuade, trick, distract, or train the elephant to do what the rider wants.

Enter social media. Suddenly the rider becomes just another voice in the maelstrom of sensory inputs. The poor, harried, distracted elephant suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous updates. The elephant wants to go where the rider directs, but there are just so many confusing directions possible to go, and many of them seem like innocuous detours but end up in miresome swamps of time-guzzling clickbait.

But this isn’t just another “We should all focus better” post. No, this one is different.

The Value of Me

A friend of mine recently shut down his Google apps. No more Gmail, no more Drive, no more Docs. Instead he’s switching to Apple’s cloud-based apps – iCloud, etc – which offer much of the same functionality.

Still, it seemed rather strange to me. When I asked him why he was doing it, he said it was because he objected to the way Google used the data of his online activities to target advertising, etc. It’s the argument that your data belongs to you, and if you’re using something for free it means that you are the product.

I’m familiar with that argument, and I still use Google, mainly because I find their apps convenient. As for the data they gather on my website usage, that’s ok with me too – I’m not using it, after all. To me giving them knowledge of what kind of things I look for on Amazon, what kind of articles I like reading, even what kind of movies I love is not a big deal.

The Value of Attention

However, there was one sentence in an article on Medium that changed everything. The article had the relatively unwieldy title of “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away” It’s well-worth a read, not the least to keep yourself up-to-date on some of the studies of this brave new information age.

For example, there’s the usual “multitasking is an illusion!” diatribe. But it includes a link to a study that showed that multitasking is not only bad for the person doing it – it actually takes away from the capabilities of people around the multitasker:

…participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students…

But we knew that already, right? But how about this: since the studies prove that attention is a limited resource, what are these social media venues doing? They are taking that resource away from you, with the help of every new “update”:

…the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field…

That’s what caught my attention (sic). That “emphasis on “getting””. Suddenly I realize that while I don’t care about the corporations making use of the trail of digital detritus I leave behind, I resent the hell out of them stealing a non-renewable resource that is more valuable to me than anything: my time.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 12.16.29 PM

Actual Screen Shot!

Attention on FULL

There are many, many articles on how to focus, how to eliminate distractions. I’ve written some myself. There are also many apps that can help, with names like “FocusFree”. But I’ll tell you right now the singular practice that I started directly after reading that article: FULL SCREEN MODE.

No more windows. If I’m in my browser, that web page is the only thing there on the screen. If I’m writing (as shown here) there’s only my wonderful Ulysses app here in front of me. I haven’t yet tracked down all the screen alerts, so it’s not perfect yet, but when I can I shut them down. Ad-free is worth the cost, and the tweets can wait until the blog post is written.

It’s changed the way I work. What do you use to focus? Or what do you wish you could change?

too much or just right connection

The Augmented Self at Rest

Credit where credit is due: I first considered the idea of the “Augmented Self” during a conversation with my good friend J.P., a stage manager extraordinaire from Toronto (among other things). He and I were discussing how often we are carrying on simultaneous connections through various media – the instant gratification of a face-to-face conversation with various other kinds of gratification extending outwards via chat, text, or email (in order of delay). At the time (and forgive me, JP, if I misquote) he said something along the lines of:

It’s not that I need to be connected all the time. It’s just that sometimes, when I’m connected in the right way, I can feel more myself than when I’m not.

I’ve always loved that phrase: “I can feel more myself…” That’s what personal development is all about, right? The tools we use to connect over distance – from the pen and paper through Google Hangouts – aren’t evil in and of themselves, they are simply tools, and can be used (at least, in JP’s case) to enrich his life by keeping him connected with others.

Like me. Many’s the time he and I just suddenly pop into each other’s lives, like a virtual Kramer/Seinfeld, just to share some thought or question. He’s at the airport, I’m I my desk. I’m at the airport, he’s backstage. Quick connection, say what we want to say (or just hang out) and then disconnect.

But What About Being Present, Gray?

I hear you! Doesn’t this idea of having a virtual connection take away from the Good Buddhist practice of being present fully in the moment? Isn’t that what we strive for?

Yes, but – I am hazarding a guess that you don’t necessarily always need to be fully present with whatever’s right in front of you. For example, I don’t need to sit there and watch the task bar change color bit by bit as a video is rendering. My mind can be more usefully engaged – and before you say “use the time for some personal reflection” (which is something I would probably say, too) let me put forth the idea that if you shift to “personal reflection” that is no less a distraction than “outside connection.”

Further, let me make another suggestion: if you have significant connections with people, places, or events that are far away, and you have the tools to still be present in some manner with them – aren’t you actually being more present as your authentic self if you maintain that connection?

Let Me Give an Example (or two)

I was a horrible person a long time ago when I was engaged to a lovely young woman. I had actually proposed to her after dating for a year, and wisely, she had said no. She then proposed to me a year later, and wisely I said no. But after three years of dating, I wanted to make sure that my next proposal was going to work.

So I played a very dirty trick. At Thanksgiving Dinner – with my father, stepmother, sisters, and daughters all there – I planned to pull out the ring. Not only that, I put my biological mother on speakerphone in order to have her “present” when I popped the question.

Now, here’s the question: was the moment made better or worse by that virtual presence? Ignore the emotional manipulation involved in putting my poor fiancée on the spot; as I said, I was horrible. But with all the facetime, video conferencing, etc that goes on – are we really worse off?

In another instance, I was part of a performing troupe here in Madison and we got a great gig. Then we got another great gig in Chicago the same night. We realized that we could do both gigs if we split the troupe up – but it was the first time we’d done that, and one of the gigs was a bit of a step up for the whole group, and we were nervous.

I remember that night exchanging many text messages with my fellow performers both here in Madison and in Chicago as both gigs were triumphantly done with outstanding skill. I remember the sense of exhilaration and pride I felt as not only the people I was with but my friends hundreds of miles away all made our art. I felt more connected thanks to the immediacy of things than I would have if I’d heard about it later.

How Much is Enough?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t unplug – by no means. In fact, tune in next week for an essay on just how much I think we need to unplug at times. What I’m saying is that there is a power to choosing what to focus on – whether that’s choosing to watch TV, text your friends, skype your daughter, and surf YouTube all evening, or spend an evening in a sensory deprivation tank with everything but your ears turned off, listening to Peter Gabriel’s Passion.

It’s all a matter of degree, and the only person who can truly decide whether you are augmenting or distracting from what’s important is you.

So pay attention. As much as you can afford to, anyway.