May the source be with you, but remember the KISS principle ;-)

Contents Bulletin Scripting in shell and Perl Network troubleshooting History Humor

Information Overload

How Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, an evil king,
was condemned to Hades to forever roll a big rock to the top of a mountain,
and then the rock always rolled back down again.
Similar version of Hell is suffered every day by people
 managed by micromanagers and control freaks.

News Books Recommended Links Obsession with Computers and Internet Drinking from a firehose Mental overload Email Overload
IT Staff Health Issues Health insurance Sleep Deprivation Obsessive-compulsive disorder Slackerism Coping with the toxic stress in IT environment Learned helplessness
Burnout Toxic managers  Micromanagers and Control Freaks Stoisim Humor Random Findings Etc

There can be several possible reasons of information overload:

Prolonged exposure to stress (Working for a corporate psychopath) increase the level of overload and contribute to the level of stress you experience.

Prolonged exposure to information overload produces so called information fatigue syndrome.  Symptoms include paralysis of analytical capacity, increased anxiety, greater self-doubt, and a tendency to blame others.  Long exposure produces symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome and in milder form is intrinsically connected with demoralization and burnout.  Here the most helpful page is probably Softpanorama Humor Archive. Unique Collection of Open Source Related Humor. Humor is one of the most affecting methods of fighting stress and  overload. It helps a person to remain positive in difficult situations more effectively that most drugs.

When people are faced with more information than they can process, they become unable to make decisions or take action. There are two important aspects of this problem: 

Often information overload is typical for high-tech startups. "Technology has changed, but human nature hasn't. Whether it's the Gold Rush of 1849 or the Web Rush of l999, people are people. More often than not, they're miserable, nasty, selfish creatures, driven by vanity and greed, doing whatever they can to get ahead, even if it means stepping on the person next to them, crushing the weak, and destroying themselves in the process." Actually this is not true.  The IT industry is a unique environment; we are truly given a more choice as to where our priorities lie than in many other jobs. But there is no free lunch. You want a cool job? Don't expect to work for a huge company and get paid the big bucks. You want to make good money? Don't expect to be able to leave the office in the middle of the day just to sit in the park and drink coffee. You want to make great money? Don't expect to work 40 or even 50 hours a week...

Actually startups aren't about the paradise, nor are they viable for those who crave security. They are about risk, not just financial but also emotional and intellectual. Some think that the rewards for success are worth it, some not... It's true that some startups hire, than harass and inflict burnout on programmers and sys-admins. Life in the fast lane can be brutal - long hours, almost no employer-employee loyalty, greed and moral cowardice, back-stabbing, pressure, etc. If you don't want to do what your boss want, a startup can probably find immigrant that will do it for less money. That is the Silicon Valley Way (TM).

Many visitors to this page are probably system administrators. And it's sad to say but sysadmins are often the janitors of e-business. To clean up the messes from the ugly packages superfast growth and unrealistic schedules they often work long, late hours. It's a thankless job (although not the only one and not the most miserable one...) Anyway the reality is that sysadmins/programmers in startups and small companies that are struggling to survive. Sometimes are also put under substantial stress... I'm surprised most of them aren't more neurotic from sleep deprivation. 

At the same time many sysadmins in established companies working with "Gold" coverage from Sun or HP can surf the WEB for 80% of the day... And if you can rarely showed up before 11 a.m., sometimes it is just a survival skill to stay past midnight once in a while... In large companies most sysadmin roles aren't always firefighting, and not so much stress, but they tends to wear on a capable person pretty quickly. Sometimes it is really look like cleaning. You clean it today, but in a month everything return to the same state.  Sometimes it make sense to play an idiot in large company in best traditions of Peter Principle. Officially recognized low-performers often can spend 90% of their time addressing only 10% of problems that high-performer needs to address. The most valued employees in large companies are often on the verge of burn-out because they are too overloaded and have way too many pressures, conflicts and demands combined with too few rewards, acknowledgments and successes.

For IS top guns it might make sense to stop for a moment to dig infodirt and ask themselves a simple question "Does working with the fancy hardware and software (let's assume for a moment that Unix can be fancy first five years or so ;-) worth 60 hours a week or even 40 hours of cleaning infodirt?". Independent of your answer thinking about this may help to adjust your priorities :-).

Pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder:  Some programmers are perversely wired. It is not uncommon for them to be sitting in a meeting and using a hand-held device to exchange instant messages surreptitiously — with someone in the same meeting. You have Pseudo-attention deficit disorder if:

Dr. Nikolai Bezroukov

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[Apr 06, 2017] Alienation in neoliberal healthcare system

Notable quotes:
"... The spike in reported burnout is directly attributable to loss of control over work, increased performance measurement (quality, cost, patient experience), the increasing complexity of medical care, the implementation of electronic health records (EHRs), and profound inefficiencies in the practice environment, all of which have altered work flows and patient interactions. ..."
"... The rest of the items seem more plausible. However absent from the post is consideration of why physicians lost control over work, have been subject to performance measurement (often without good evidence that it improves performance, and particularly patients' outcomes), and have been forced to use often badly designed, poorly implemented EHRs ..."
"... In fact, we began the project that led to the establishment of Health Care Renewal because of our general perception that physician angst was worsening (in the first few years of the 21st century), and that no one was seriously addressing its causes. Our first crude qualitative research(8) suggested hypotheses that physicians' angst was due to perceived threats to their core values, and that these threats arose from the issues this blog discusses: concentration and abuse of power, leadership that is ill-informed , uncaring about or hostile to the values of health care professionals, incompetent, deceptive or dishonest, self-interested , conflicted , or outright corrupt , and governance that lacks accountability , and transparency . ..."
"... We have found hundreds of cases and anecdotes supporting this viewpoint. ..."
"... However, the biggest cause of physicians' loss of control over work may be the rising power of large health care organizations, in particular the large hospital systems that now increasingly employ physicians, turning them into corporate physicians . ..."
"... We have also frequently posted about what we have called generic management , the manager's coup d'etat , and mission-hostile management. Managerialism wraps these concepts up into a single package. The idea is that all organizations, including health care organizations, ought to be run people with generic management training and background, not necessarily by people with specific backgrounds or training in the organizations' areas of operation. Thus, for example, hospitals ought to be run by MBAs, not doctors, nurses, or public health experts. Furthermore, all organizations ought to be run according to the same basic principles of business management. These principles in turn ought to be based on current neoliberal dogma , with the prime directive that short-term revenue is the primary goal. ..."
Apr 06, 2017 |

Here is what the blog post said about the causes of burnout:

The spike in reported burnout is directly attributable to loss of control over work, increased performance measurement (quality, cost, patient experience), the increasing complexity of medical care, the implementation of electronic health records (EHRs), and profound inefficiencies in the practice environment, all of which have altered work flows and patient interactions.

We dealt with the curious citation of inefficiencies as a cause of burnout above.

The rest of the items seem more plausible. However absent from the post is consideration of why physicians lost control over work, have been subject to performance measurement (often without good evidence that it improves performance, and particularly patients' outcomes), and have been forced to use often badly designed, poorly implemented EHRs . Particularly absent was any consideration of whether the nature or actions of large organizations, such as those led by the authors of the blog post, could have had anything to do with physician burnout.

Contrast this discussion with how we on Health Care Renewal have discussed burnout in the past. In 2012, we noted the first report on burnout by Shanefelt et al(2). At that time we observed that the already voluminous literature on burnout often did not attend to the external forces and influences on physicians that are likely to be producing burnout. Instead, burnout etc has been addressed as if it were lack of resilience, or even some sort of psychiatric disease of physicians.

In fact, we began the project that led to the establishment of Health Care Renewal because of our general perception that physician angst was worsening (in the first few years of the 21st century), and that no one was seriously addressing its causes. Our first crude qualitative research(8) suggested hypotheses that physicians' angst was due to perceived threats to their core values, and that these threats arose from the issues this blog discusses: concentration and abuse of power, leadership that is ill-informed , uncaring about or hostile to the values of health care professionals, incompetent, deceptive or dishonest, self-interested , conflicted , or outright corrupt , and governance that lacks accountability , and transparency .

We have found hundreds of cases and anecdotes supporting this viewpoint.

... ... ...

Finally, the Health Affairs post mention of "loss of control over work" deserves special attention. It could represent a catch-all of more "system factors" as noted above. However, the biggest cause of physicians' loss of control over work may be the rising power of large health care organizations, in particular the large hospital systems that now increasingly employ physicians, turning them into corporate physicians .

In the US, home of the most commercialized health care system among developed countries, physicians increasingly practice as employees of large organizations, usually hospitals and hospital systems, sometimes for-profit corporations. The leaders of such systems meanwhile are now often generic managers , people trained as managers without specific training or experience in medicine or health care, and " managerialists " who apply generic management theory and dogma to medicine and health care just as it might be applied to building widgets or selling soap.

We have also frequently posted about what we have called generic management , the manager's coup d'etat , and mission-hostile management. Managerialism wraps these concepts up into a single package. The idea is that all organizations, including health care organizations, ought to be run people with generic management training and background, not necessarily by people with specific backgrounds or training in the organizations' areas of operation. Thus, for example, hospitals ought to be run by MBAs, not doctors, nurses, or public health experts. Furthermore, all organizations ought to be run according to the same basic principles of business management. These principles in turn ought to be based on current neoliberal dogma , with the prime directive that short-term revenue is the primary goal.

... ... ...


I am glad that physician burnout is getting less anechoic. However, in my humble opinion, the last thing physicians at risk of or suffering burnout need is a top down diktat from CEOs of large health care organizations. The CEOs who wrote the Health Affairs post not have any personal responsibility for any physicians' burnout. However, the transformation of medical practice by the influence of large health care organizations run by the authors' fellow CEOs, particularly huge hospital systems, often resulting in physicians practicing as hired employees of such corporations likely is a major cause of burnout. If the leaders of such large organizations really want to reduce burnout, they should first listen to their own physicians. But this might lead them to realize that reducing burnout might require them to divest themselves of considerable authority, power, and hence remuneration. True health care reform in this sphere will require the breakup of concentrations of power, and the transformation of leadership to make it well-informed, supportive of and willing to be accountable for the health care mission, honest and unconflicted.

Physicians need to join up with other health care professionals and concerned member of the public to push for such reform, which may seem radical in our current era. Such reform may be made more difficult because it clearly would threaten the financial status of some people who have gotten very rich from the status quo, and can use their wealth and power to resist reform.

[Nov 23, 2016] Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It

Nov 23, 2016 |
( 184 Posted by msmash on Monday November 21, 2016 @12:20PM from the dilemma dept.

The New York Times ran a strong opinion piece that talks about one critical reason why everyone should quit social media: your career is dependent on it. The other argues that by spending time on social media and sharing our thoughts, we are demeaning the value of our work, our ideas . (Editor's note: the link could be paywalled; alternate source .)

Select excerpts from the story follows:

In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.

Professional success is hard, but it's not complicated. The foundation to achievement and fulfillment, almost without exception, requires that you hone a useful craft and then apply it to things that people care about. [...] Interesting opportunities and useful connections are not as scarce as social media proponents claim. In my own professional life, for example, as I improved my standing as an academic and a writer, I began receiving more interesting opportunities than I could handle. As you become more valuable to the marketplace, good things will find you.

To be clear, I'm not arguing that new opportunities and connections are unimportant. I'm instead arguing that you don't need social media's help to attract them. My second objection concerns the idea that social media is harmless. Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it's engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it's designed to be used -- persistently throughout your waking hours -- the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

Once this Pavlovian connection is solidified, it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, and your brain simply won't tolerate such a long period without a fix. Indeed, part of my own rejection of social media comes from this fear that these services will diminish my ability to concentrate -- the skill on which I make my living.

A dedication to cultivating your social media brand is a fundamentally passive approach to professional advancement. It diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter. The latter activity is seductive, especially for many members of my generation who were raised on this message, but it can be disastrously counterproductive.

Tim Harford — Article — Multi-tasking how to survive in the 21st century

Modern life now forces us to do a multitude of things at once — but can we? Should we?

Forget invisibility or flight: the superpower we all want is the ability to do several things at once. Unlike other superpowers, however, being able to multitask is now widely regarded as a basic requirement for employability. Some of us sport computers with multiple screens, to allow tweeting while trading pork bellies and frozen orange juice. Others make do with reading a Kindle while poking at a smartphone and glancing at a television in the corner with its two rows of scrolling subtitles. We think nothing of sending an email to a colleague to suggest a quick coffee break, because we can feel confident that the email will be read within minutes.

All this is simply the way the modern world works. Multitasking is like being able to read or add up, so fundamental that it is taken for granted. Doing one thing at a time is for losers — recall Lyndon Johnson’s often bowdlerised dismissal of Gerald Ford: “He can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.”

The rise of multitasking is fuelled by technology, of course, and by social change as well. Husbands and wives no longer specialise as breadwinners and homemakers; each must now do both. Work and play blur. Your friends can reach you on your work email account at 10 o’clock in the morning, while your boss can reach you on your mobile phone at 10 o’clock at night. You can do your weekly shop sitting at your desk and you can handle a work query in the queue at the supermarket.

This is good news in many ways — how wonderful to be able to get things done in what would once have been wasted time! How delightful the variety of it all is! No longer must we live in a monotonous, Taylorist world where we must painstakingly focus on repetitive tasks until we lose our minds.

And yet we are starting to realise that the blessings of a multitasking life are mixed. We feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of things we might plausibly be doing at any one time, and by the feeling that we are on call at any moment.

And we fret about the unearthly appetite of our children to do everything at once, flipping through homework while chatting on WhatsApp, listening to music and watching Game of Thrones. (According to a recent study by Sabrina Pabilonia of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, for over half the time that high-school students spend doing homework, they are also listening to music, watching TV or otherwise multitasking. That trend is on the increase.) Can they really handle all these inputs at once? They seem to think so, despite various studies suggesting otherwise.

And so a backlash against multitasking has begun — a kind of Luddite self-help campaign. The poster child for uni-tasking was launched on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter in December 2014. For $499 — substantially more than a multifunctional laptop — “The Hemingwrite” computer promised a nice keyboard, a small e-ink screen and an automatic cloud back-up. You couldn’t email on the Hemingwrite. You couldn’t fool around on YouTube, and you couldn’t read the news. All you could do was type. The Hemingwrite campaign raised over a third of a million dollars.

The Hemingwrite (now rebranded the Freewrite) represents an increasingly popular response to the multitasking problem: abstinence. Programs such as Freedom and Self-Control are now available to disable your browser for a preset period of time. The popular blogging platform WordPress offers “distraction-free writing”. The Villa Stéphanie, a hotel in Baden-Baden, offers what has been branded the “ultimate luxury”: a small silver switch beside the hotel bed that will activate a wireless blocker and keep the internet and all its temptations away.

The battle lines have been drawn. On one side: the culture of the modern workplace, which demands that most of us should be open to interruption at any time. On the other, the uni-tasking refuseniks who insist that multitaskers are deluding themselves, and that focus is essential. Who is right?

The ‘cognitive cost’

There is ample evidence in favour of the proposition that we should focus on one thing at a time. Consider a study led by David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah. In 2006, Strayer and his colleagues used a high-fidelity driving simulator to compare the performance of drivers who were chatting on a mobile phone to drivers who had drunk enough alcohol to be at the legal blood-alcohol limit in the US. Chatting drivers didn’t adopt the aggressive, risk-taking style of drunk drivers but they were unsafe in other ways. They took much longer to respond to events outside the car, and they failed to notice a lot of the visual cues around them. Strayer’s infamous conclusion: driving while using a mobile phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk.

Less famous was Strayer’s finding that it made no difference whether the driver was using a handheld or hands-free phone. The problem with talking while driving is not a shortage of hands. It is a shortage of mental bandwidth.

Yet this discovery has made little impression either on public opinion or on the law. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is an offence to use a hand-held phone while driving but perfectly legal if the phone is used hands-free. We’re happy to acknowledge that we only have two hands but refuse to admit that we only have one brain.

Another study by Strayer, David Sanbonmatsu and others, suggested that we are also poor judges of our ability to multitask. The subjects who reported doing a lot of multitasking were also the ones who performed poorly on tests of multitasking ability. They systematically overrated their ability to multitask and they displayed poor impulse control. In other words, wanting to multitask is a good sign that you should not be multitasking.

We may not immediately realise how multitasking is hampering us. The first time I took to Twitter to comment on a public event was during a televised prime-ministerial debate in 2010. The sense of buzz was fun; I could watch the candidates argue and the twitterati respond, compose my own 140-character profundities and see them being shared. I felt fully engaged with everything that was happening. Yet at the end of the debate I realised, to my surprise, that I couldn’t remember anything that Brown, Cameron and Clegg had said.

A study conducted at UCLA in 2006 suggests that my experience is not unusual. Three psychologists, Karin Foerde, Barbara Knowlton and Russell Poldrack, recruited students to look at a series of flashcards with symbols on them, and then to make predictions based on patterns they had recognised. Some of these prediction tasks were done in a multitasking environment, where the students also had to listen to low- and high-pitched tones and count the high-pitched ones. You might think that making predictions while also counting beeps was too much for the students to handle. It wasn’t. They were equally competent at spotting patterns with or without the note-counting task.

But here’s the catch: when the researchers then followed up by asking more abstract questions about the patterns, the cognitive cost of the multitasking became clear. The students struggled to answer questions about the predictions they’d made in the multitasking environment. They had successfully juggled both tasks in the moment — but they hadn’t learnt anything that they could apply in a different context.

That’s an unnerving discovery. When we are sending email in the middle of a tedious meeting, we may nevertheless feel that we’re taking in what is being said. A student may be confident that neither Snapchat nor the live football is preventing them taking in their revision notes. But the UCLA findings suggest that this feeling of understanding may be an illusion and that, later, we’ll find ourselves unable to remember much, or to apply our knowledge flexibly. So, multitasking can make us forgetful — one more way in which multitaskers are a little bit like drunks.

Early multitaskers

All this is unnerving, given that the modern world makes multitasking almost inescapable. But perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much. Long before multitasking became ubiquitous, it had a long and distinguished history.

In 1958, a young psychologist named Bernice Eiduson embarked on an long-term research project — so long-term, in fact, that Eiduson died before it was completed. Eiduson studied the working methods of 40 scientists, all men. She interviewed them periodically over two decades and put them through various psychological tests. Some of these scientists found their careers fizzling out, while others went on to great success. Four won Nobel Prizes and two others were widely regarded as serious Nobel contenders. Several more were invited to join the National Academy of Sciences.

After Eiduson died, some of her colleagues published an analysis of her work. These colleagues, Robert Root-Bernstein, Maurine Bernstein and Helen Garnier, wanted to understand what determined whether a scientist would have a long productive career, a combination of genius and longevity.

There was no clue in the interviews or the psychological tests. But looking at the early publication record of these scientists — their first 100 published research papers — researchers discovered a pattern: the top scientists were constantly changing the focus of their research.

Over the course of these first 100 papers, the most productive scientists covered five different research areas and moved from one of these topics to another an average of 43 times. They would publish, and change the subject, publish again, and change the subject again. Since most scientific research takes an extended period of time, the subjects must have overlapped. The secret to a long and highly productive scientific career? It’s multitasking.

Charles Darwin thrived on spinning multiple plates. He began his first notebook on “transmutation of species” two decades before The Origin of Species was published. His A Biographical Sketch of an Infant was based on notes made after his son William was born; William was 37 when he published. Darwin spent nearly 20 years working on climbing and insectivorous plants. And Darwin published a learned book on earthworms in 1881, just before his death. He had been working on it for 44 years. When two psychologists, Howard Gruber and Sara Davis, studied Darwin and other celebrated artists and scientists they concluded that such overlapping interests were common.

Another team of psychologists, led by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, interviewed almost 100 exceptionally creative people from jazz pianist Oscar Peterson to science writer Stephen Jay Gould to double Nobel laureate, the physicist John Bardeen. Csikszentmihalyi is famous for developing the idea of “flow”, the blissful state of being so absorbed in a challenge that one loses track of time and sets all distractions to one side. Yet every one of Csikszentmihalyi’s interviewees made a practice of keeping several projects bubbling away simultaneously.

Just internet addiction?

If the word “multitasking” can apply to both Darwin and a teenager with a serious Instagram habit, there is probably some benefit in defining our terms. There are at least four different things we might mean when we talk about multitasking. One is genuine multitasking: patting your head while rubbing your stomach; playing the piano and singing; farting while chewing gum. Genuine multitasking is possible, but at least one of the tasks needs to be so practised as to be done without thinking.

Then there’s the challenge of creating a presentation for your boss while also fielding phone calls for your boss and keeping an eye on email in case your boss wants you. This isn’t multitasking in the same sense. A better term is task switching, as our attention flits between the presentation, the telephone and the inbox. A great deal of what we call multitasking is in fact rapid task switching.

Task switching is often confused with a third, quite different activity — the guilty pleasure of disappearing down an unending click-hole of celebrity gossip and social media updates. There is a difference between the person who reads half a page of a journal article, then stops to write some notes about a possible future project, then goes back to the article — and someone who reads half a page of a journal article before clicking on bikini pictures for the rest of the morning. “What we’re often calling multitasking is in fact internet addiction,” says Shelley Carson, a psychologist and author of Your Creative Brain. “It’s a compulsive act, not an act of multitasking.”

A final kind of multitasking isn’t a way of getting things done but simply the condition of having a lot of things to do. The car needs to be taken in for a service. Your tooth is hurting. The nanny can’t pick up the kids from school today. There’s a big sales meeting to prepare for tomorrow, and your tax return is due next week. There are so many things that have to be done, so many responsibilities to attend to. Having a lot of things to do is not the same as doing them all at once. It’s just life. And it is not necessarily a stumbling block to getting things done — as Bernice Eiduson discovered as she tracked scientists on their way to their Nobel Prizes.

The fight for focus

These four practices — multitasking, task switching, getting distracted and managing multiple projects — all fit under the label “multitasking”. This is not just because of a simple linguistic confusion. The versatile networked devices we use tend to blur the distinction, serving us as we move from task to task while also offering an unlimited buffet of distractions. But the different kinds of multitasking are linked in other ways too. In particular, the highly productive practice of having multiple projects invites the less-than-productive habit of rapid task switching.

To see why, consider a story that psychologists like to tell about a restaurant near Berlin University in the 1920s. (It is retold in Willpower, a book by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.) The story has it that when a large group of academics descended upon the restaurant, the waiter stood and calmly nodded as each new item was added to their complicated order. He wrote nothing down, but when he returned with the food his memory had been flawless. The academics left, still talking about the prodigious feat; but when one of them hurried back to retrieve something he’d left behind, the waiter had no recollection of him. How could the waiter have suddenly become so absent-minded? “Very simple,” he said. “When the order has been completed, I forget it.”

One member of the Berlin school was a young experimental psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik. Intrigued, she demonstrated that people have a better recollection of uncompleted tasks. This is called the “Zeigarnik effect”: when we leave things unfinished, we can’t quite let go of them mentally. Our subconscious keeps reminding us that the task needs attention.

The Zeigarnik effect may explain the connection between facing multiple responsibilities and indulging in rapid task switching. We flit from task to task to task because we can’t forget about all of the things that we haven’t yet finished. We flit from task to task to task because we’re trying to get the nagging voices in our head to shut up.

Of course, there is much to be said for “focus”. But there is much to be said for copperplate handwriting, too, and for having a butler. The world has moved on. There’s something appealing about the Hemingwrite and the hotel room that will make the internet go away, but also something futile.

It is probably not true that Facebook is all that stands between you and literary greatness. And in most office environments, the Hemingwrite is not the tool that will win you promotion. You are not Ernest Hemingway, and you do not get to simply ignore emails from your colleagues.

If focus is going to have a chance, it’s going to have to fight an asymmetric war. Focus can only survive if it can reach an accommodation with the demands of a multitasking world.

Loops and lists

The word “multitasking” wasn’t applied to humans until the 1990s, but it has been used to describe computers for half a century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first used in print in 1966, when the magazine Datamation described a computer capable of appearing to perform several operations at the same time.

Just as with humans, computers typically create the illusion of multitasking by switching tasks rapidly. Computers perform the switching more quickly, of course, and they don’t take 20 minutes to get back on track after an interruption.

Nor does a computer fret about what is not being done. While rotating a polygon and sending text to the printer, it feels no guilt that the mouse has been left unchecked for the past 16 milliseconds. The mouse’s time will come. Being a computer means never having to worry about the Zeigarnik effect.

Is there a lesson in this for distractible sacks of flesh like you and me? How can we keep a sense of control despite the incessant guilt of all the things we haven’t finished?

“Whenever you say to someone, ‘I’ll get back to you about that’, you just opened a loop in your brain,” says David Allen. Allen is the author of a cult productivity book called Getting Things Done. “That loop will keep spinning until you put a placeholder in a system you can trust.”

Modern life is always inviting us to open more of those loops. It isn’t necessarily that we have more work to do, but that we have more kinds of work that we ought to be doing at any given moment. Tasks now bleed into each other unforgivingly. Whatever we’re doing, we can’t escape the sense that perhaps we should be doing something else. It’s these overlapping possibilities that take the mental toll.

The principle behind Getting Things Done is simple: close the open loops. The details can become rather involved but the method is straightforward. For every single commitment you’ve made to yourself or to someone else, write down the very next thing you plan to do. Review your lists of next actions frequently enough to give you confidence that you won’t miss anything.

This method has a cult following, and practical experience suggests that many people find it enormously helpful — including me (see below). Only recently, however, did the psychologists E J Masicampo and Roy Baumeister find some academic evidence to explain why people find relief by using David Allen’s system. Masicampo and Baumeister found that you don’t need to complete a task to banish the Zeigarnik effect. Making a specific plan will do just as well. Write down your next action and you quiet that nagging voice at the back of your head. You are outsourcing your anxiety to a piece of paper.

A creative edge?

It is probably a wise idea to leave rapid task switching to the computers. Yet even frenetic flipping between Facebook, email and a document can have some benefits alongside the costs.

The psychologist Shelley Carson and her student Justin Moore recently recruited experimental subjects for a test of rapid task switching. Each subject was given a pair of tasks to do: crack a set of anagrams and read an article from an academic journal. These tasks were presented on a computer screen, and for half of the subjects they were presented sequentially — first solve the anagrams, then read the article. For the other half of the experimental group, the computer switched every two-and-a-half minutes between the anagrams and the journal article, forcing the subjects to change mental gears many times.

Unsurprisingly, task switching slowed the subjects down and scrambled their thinking. They solved fewer anagrams and performed poorly on a test of reading comprehension when forced to refocus every 150 seconds.

But the multitasking treatment did have a benefit. Subjects who had been task switching became more creative. To be specific, their scores on tests of “divergent” thinking improved. Such tests ask subjects to pour out multiple answers to odd questions. They might be asked to think of as many uses as possible for a rolling pin or to list all the consequences they could summon to mind of a world where everyone has three arms. Involuntary multitaskers produced a greater volume and variety of answers, and their answers were more original too.

“It seems that switching back and forth between tasks primed people for creativity,” says Carson, who is an adjunct professor at Harvard. The results of her work with Moore have not yet been published, and one might reasonably object that such tasks are trivial measures of creativity. Carson responds that scores on these laboratory tests of divergent thinking are correlated with substantial creative achievements such as publishing a novel, producing a professional stage show or creating an award-winning piece of visual art. For those who insist that great work can only be achieved through superhuman focus, think long and hard on this discovery.

Carson and colleagues have found an association between significant creative achievement and a trait psychologists term “low latent inhibition”. Latent inhibition is the filter that all mammals have that allows them to tune out apparently irrelevant stimuli. It would be crippling to listen to every conversation in the open-plan office and the hum of the air conditioning, while counting the number of people who walk past the office window. Latent inhibition is what saves us from having to do so. These subconscious filters let us walk through the world without being overwhelmed by all the different stimuli it hurls at us.

And yet people whose filters are a little bit porous have a big creative edge. Think on that, uni-taskers: while you busily try to focus on one thing at a time, the people who struggle to filter out the buzz of the world are being reviewed in The New Yorker.

“You’re letting more information into your cognitive workspace, and that information can be consciously or unconsciously combined,” says Carson. Two other psychologists, Holly White and Priti Shah, found a similar pattern for people suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It would be wrong to romanticise potentially disabling conditions such as ADHD. All these studies were conducted on university students, people who had already demonstrated an ability to function well. But their conditions weren’t necessarily trivial — to participate in the White/Shah experiment, students had to have a clinical diagnosis of ADHD, meaning that their condition was troubling enough to prompt them to seek professional help.

It’s surprising to discover that being forced to switch tasks can make us more creative. It may be still more surprising to realise that in an age where we live under the threat of constant distraction, people who are particularly prone to being distracted are flourishing creatively.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be entirely surprised. It’s easier to think outside the box if the box is full of holes. And it’s also easier to think outside the box if you spend a lot of time clambering between different boxes. “The act of switching back and forth can grease the wheels of thought,” says John Kounios, a professor of psychology at Drexel University.

Kounios, who is co-author of The Eureka Factor, suggests that there are at least two other potentially creative mechanisms at play when we switch between tasks. One is that the new task can help us forget bad ideas. When solving a creative problem, it’s easy to become stuck because we think of an incorrect solution but simply can’t stop returning to it. Doing something totally new induces “fixation forgetting”, leaving us free to find the right answer.

Another is “opportunistic assimilation”. This is when the new task prompts us to think of a solution to the old one. The original Eureka moment is an example.

As the story has it, Archimedes was struggling with the task of determining whether a golden wreath truly was made of pure gold without damaging the ornate treasure. The solution was to determine whether the wreath had the same volume as a pure gold ingot with the same mass; this, in turn, could be done by submerging both the wreath and the ingot to see whether they displaced the same volume of water.

This insight, we are told, occurred to Archimedes while he was having a bath and watching the water level rise and fall as he lifted himself in and out. And if solving such a problem while having a bath isn’t multitasking, then what is?

Tim Harford is an FT columnist. His latest book is ‘The Undercover Economist Strikes Back’. Twitter: @TimHarford

Six ways to be a master of multitasking

1. Be mindful

“The ideal situation is to be able to multitask when multitasking is appropriate, and focus when focusing is important,” says psychologist Shelley Carson. Tom Chatfield, author of Live This Book, suggests making two lists, one for activities best done with internet access and one for activities best done offline. Connecting and disconnecting from the internet should be deliberate acts.

2. Write it down

The essence of David Allen’s Getting Things Done is to turn every vague guilty thought into a specific action, to write down all of the actions and to review them regularly. The point, says Allen, is to feel relaxed about what you’re doing — and about what you’ve decided not to do right now — confident that nothing will fall through the cracks.

3. Tame your smartphone

The smartphone is a great servant and a harsh master. Disable needless notifications — most people don’t need to know about incoming tweets and emails. Set up a filing system within your email so that when a message arrives that requires a proper keyboard to answer — ie 50 words or more — you can move that email out of your inbox and place it in a folder where it will be waiting for you when you fire up your computer.

4. Focus in short sprints

The “Pomodoro Technique” — named after a kitchen timer — alternates focusing for 25 minutes and breaking for five minutes, across two-hour sessions. Productivity guru Merlin Mann suggests an “email dash”, where you scan email and deal with urgent matters for a few minutes each hour. Such ideas let you focus intensely while also switching between projects several times a day.

5. Procrastinate to win

If you have several interesting projects on the go, you can procrastinate over one by working on another. (It worked for Charles Darwin.) A change is as good as a rest, they say — and as psychologist John Kounios explains, such task switching can also unlock new ideas.

6. Cross-fertilise

“Creative ideas come to people who are interdisciplinary, working across different organisational units or across many projects,” says author and research psychologist Keith Sawyer. (Appropriately, Sawyer is also a jazz pianist, a former management consultant and a sometime game designer for Atari.) Good ideas often come when your mind makes unexpected connections between different fields.

Tim Harford’s To-Do Lists

David Allen’s Getting Things Done system — or GTD — has reached the status of a religion among some productivity geeks. At its heart, it’s just a fancy to-do list, but it’s more powerful than a regular list because it’s comprehensive, specific and designed to prompt you when you need prompting. Here’s how I make the idea work for me.

Write everything down. I use Google Calendar for appointments and an electronic to-do list called Remember the Milk, plus an ad hoc daily list on paper. The details don’t matter. The principle is never to carry a mental commitment around in your head.

Make the list comprehensive. Mine currently has 151 items on it. (No, I don’t memorise the number. I just counted.)

Keep the list fresh. The system works its anxiety-reducing magic best if you trust your calendar and to-do list to remind you when you need reminding. I spend about 20 minutes once a week reviewing the list to note incoming deadlines and make sure the list is neither missing important commitments nor cluttered with stale projects. Review is vital — the more you trust your list, the more you use it. The more you use it, the more you trust it.

List by context as well as topic. It’s natural to list tasks by topic or project — everything associated with renovating the spare room, for instance, or next year’s annual away-day. I also list them by context (this is easy on an electronic list). Things I can do when on a plane; things I can only do when at the shops; things I need to talk about when I next see my boss.

Be specific about the next action. If you’re just writing down vague reminders, the to-do list will continue to provoke anxiety. Before you write down an ill-formed task, take the 15 seconds required to think about exactly what that task is.

Written for and first published at

[Jul 24, 2015] How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain

Jul 24, 2015 | The New York Times

A walk in the park may soothe the mind and, in the process, change the workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental health, according to an interesting new study of the physical effects on the brain of visiting nature.

Most of us today live in cities and spend far less time outside in green, natural spaces than people did several generations ago.

City dwellers also have a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living outside urban centers, studies show.

These developments seem to be linked to some extent, according to a growing body of research. Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.

But just how a visit to a park or other green space might alter mood has been unclear. Does experiencing nature actually change our brains in some way that affects our emotional health?

That possibility intrigued Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, who has been studying the psychological effects of urban living. In an earlier study published last month, he and his colleagues found that volunteers who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier afterward than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic.

But that study did not examine the neurological mechanisms that might underlie the effects of being outside in nature.

So for the new study, which was published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Bratman and his collaborators decided to closely scrutinize what effect a walk might have on a person's tendency to brood.

Brooding, which is known among cognitive scientists as morbid rumination, is a mental state familiar to most of us, in which we can't seem to stop chewing over the ways in which things are wrong with ourselves and our lives. This broken-record fretting is not healthy or helpful. It can be a precursor to depression and is disproportionately common among city dwellers compared with people living outside urban areas, studies show.

Perhaps most interesting for the purposes of Mr. Bratman and his colleagues, however, such rumination also is strongly associated with increased activity in a portion of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex.

If the researchers could track activity in that part of the brain before and after people visited nature, Mr. Bratman realized, they would have a better idea about whether and to what extent nature changes people's minds.

Mr. Bratman and his colleagues first gathered 38 healthy, adult city dwellers and asked them to complete a questionnaire to determine their normal level of morbid rumination.

The researchers also checked for brain activity in each volunteer's subgenual prefrontal cortex, using scans that track blood flow through the brain. Greater blood flow to parts of the brain usually signals more activity in those areas.

Then the scientists randomly assigned half of the volunteers to walk for 90 minutes through a leafy, quiet, parklike portion of the Stanford campus or next to a loud, hectic, multi-lane highway in Palo Alto. The volunteers were not allowed to have companions or listen to music. They were allowed to walk at their own pace.

Immediately after completing their walks, the volunteers returned to the lab and repeated both the questionnaire and the brain scan.

As might have been expected, walking along the highway had not soothed people's minds. Blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and their broodiness scores were unchanged.

But the volunteers who had strolled along the quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, according to their scores on the questionnaire. They were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk.

They also had less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. That portion of their brains were quieter.

These results "strongly suggest that getting out into natural environments" could be an easy and almost immediate way to improve moods for city dwellers, Mr. Bratman said.

But of course many questions remain, he said, including how much time in nature is sufficient or ideal for our mental health, as well as what aspects of the natural world are most soothing. Is it the greenery, quiet, sunniness, loamy smells, all of those, or something else that lifts our moods? Do we need to be walking or otherwise physically active outside to gain the fullest psychological benefits? Should we be alone or could companionship amplify mood enhancements?

"There's a tremendous amount of study that still needs to be done," Mr. Bratman said.

But in the meantime, he pointed out, there is little downside to strolling through the nearest park, and some chance that you might beneficially muffle, at least for awhile, your subgenual prefrontal cortex.

[May 28, 2015] 5 reasons why you shouldn’t work too hard

The Washington Post

Forget Russian figure skater Julia Lipnitskaia spinning in a blur with her leg impossibly held straight up against her ear. The sight of skier Bode Miller collapsing with emotion at the end of a race dedicated to his brother while NBC cameras lingered uncomfortably on the long shot. Or even jubilant Noelle Pikus-Pace climbing into the stands to race into her family’s arms after her silver medal finish in the Skeleton.

The image that stands out most in my mind during the broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics? The Cadillac commercial with a boxy, middle-aged white guy in a fancy house striding purposefully from his luxurious swimming pool to his $75,000 luxury Cadillac ELR parked out front while extolling the virtues of hard work, American style.

“Why do we work so hard? For stuff?” actor Neal McDonough asks in the commercial that has been playing without cease. “Other countries work. They stroll home. They stop by a café. They take the entire month of August off. “Off,” he says again, to reinforce the point.

“Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t WE like that?”

The first time the commercial aired during the Opening Ceremonies in Sochi, the slight pause after those two questions made me hopeful. I sat up to listen closely.

Was he about to say – we should be more like that? Because Americans work among the most hours of any advanced country in the world, save South Korea and Japan, where they’ve had to invent a word for dying at your desk. (Karoshi. Death from Overwork.) We also work among the most extreme hours, at 50 or more per week. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American works about one month more a year than in 1976.

Was he going to say that we Americans are caught up in what economist Juliet Schor calls a vicious cycle of “work-and-spend” – caught on a time-sucking treadmill of more spending, more stuff, more debt, stagnant wages, higher costs and more work to pay for it all?

Would he talk about how we Americans, alone among the advanced economies, whose athletes are competing between the incessant commercials with such athleticism and grace, have no national vacation policy. (So sacrosanct is time off in some countries that the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in 2012 that workers who get sick on vacation are entitled to take more time off “to enable the worker to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation and leisure.”).

American leisure? Don’t let the averages fool you, he could say. While it looks like leisure time has gone up, time diaries show that leisure and sleep time have gone up steeply since 1985 for those with less than a high school degree. Why? They’re becoming unemployed or underemployed. And leisure and sleep time for the college educated, the ones working those crazy extreme hours, has fallen steeply.

Americans don’t have two “nurture days” per child until age 8, as Denmark does. No year-long paid parental leaves for mothers and fathers, as in Iceland. Nor a national three-month sabbatical policy, which Belgium has.

Instead of taking the entire month of August off, the most employers voluntarily grant us American workers tends to be two weeks. One in four workers gets no paid vacation or holidays at all, one study found. And, in a telling annual report called the “Vacation Deprivation” study, travel company Expedia figures that Americans didn’t even USE 577 million of those measly vacation days at all last year.

Center for Economic and Policy Research, May 2013 Center for Economic and Policy Research, May 2013

So as I watched the Cadillac commercial, hanging onto that rich white guy’s pause, I was hoping he’d make a pitch to bring some sanity to American workaholic culture. It wouldn’t have been a first for the auto industry. Henry Ford outraged his fellow industrialists when he cut his workers’ hours to 40 a week. (Standards in some industries at the time were for 12-hour workdays, 7 days a week.) Ford did so because his internal research showed 40 hours was as far as you could push manual laborers in a week before they got stupid and began making costly mistakes. He also wanted his workers to have the leisure time to buy and use his cars.

The rich guy takes a breath and smirks. We work so much “Because we’re crazy, driven hard-working believers, that’s why.” Bill Gates. The Wright Brothers. Were they crazy? He asks. We went to the moon and, you know what we got? Bored, he says.

“You work hard. You create your own luck. And you’ve gotta believe anything is possible.” Fair enough. “As for all the stuff?” he says as he knowingly unplugs his luxury electric car, “that’s the upside of only taking TWO weeks off in August, n’est ce pas?”

[Apr 19, 2015] Can High Intelligence Be a Burden Rather Than a Boon?

Apr 18, 2015 |

timothy on Saturday April 18, 2015 @11:22AM writes David Robson has an interesting article at BBC on the relationship between high intelligence and happiness. "We tend to think of geniuses as being plagued by existential angst, frustration, and loneliness," writes Robson. Think of Virginia Woolf, Alan Turing, or Lisa Simpson – lone stars, isolated even as they burn their brightest." As Ernest Hemingway wrote: "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

The first steps to studying the question were taken in 1926 when psychologist Lewis Terman decided to identify and study a group of gifted children. Terman selected 1,500 pupils with an IQ of 140 or more – 80 of whom had IQs above 170. Together, they became known as the "Termites", and the highs and lows of their lives are still being studied to this day. "As you might expect, many of the Termites did achieve wealth and fame – most notably Jess Oppenheimer, the writer of the classic 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. Indeed, by the time his series aired on CBS, the Termites' average salary was twice that of the average white-collar job. But not all the group met Terman's expectations – there were many who pursued more "humble" professions such as police officers, seafarers, and typists.

For this reason, Terman concluded that "intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated". Nor did their smarts endow personal happiness. Over the course of their lives, levels of divorce, alcoholism and suicide were about the same as the national average."

According to Robson, one possibility is that knowledge of your talents becomes something of a ball and chain. During the 1990s, the surviving Termites were asked to look back at the events in their 80-year lifespan. Rather than basking in their successes, many reported that they had been plagued by the sense that they had somehow failed to live up to their youthful expectations (PDF).

Bo'Bob'O (95398) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @11:41AM (#49500291)

The third factor (Score:5, Insightful)

I surely wouldn't qualify as one of the 'termites' in the study, but there still things in my life I take to quickly. There is a third metric that I am in my coming to respect even more: motivation and inspiration.

There is a big difference between having the ability to do something, having the need to do something, and having a want and drive to do something. That last one seems to get people much further then being at the very top in intelligence. It also provides a framework of interaction and social connection between peers, if it is truly a passion.

So maybe it takes being the best and brightest to be first chair violinist in a prestigious symphony, but being brilliant alone won't get you there. Meanwhile hundreds of others have a long and successful career they make out of their perseverance.

radtea (464814) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @11:57AM (#49500359)

Re:The third factor (Score:5, Interesting)

You've likely encountered this quote, but it bears repeating:

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. -- Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of US (1872 - 1933)

E-Rock (84950) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @01:39PM (#49500767) Homepage

Re:Persistence is not omnipotent. (Score:5, Insightful)

Persistence doesn't mean trying the same thing over and over until it works. Persistence is trying to achieve your goals over and over again until you're successful.

So you might bang your head on the wall a few times, realize that won't work and then try different things until you break it down.

NixieBunny (859050) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @12:08PM (#49500403) Homepage

Re:The third factor (Score:4, Interesting)

Happiness has a lot to do with attitude. I find that being generally happy is easy if you use your abilities to put yourself into situations that make you happy. I used to work for a place that got to be more and more like Dilbert.

Instead of drowning in it, I broke loose and made a new life, using my brains to create interesting, fun things. I found part-time work in the sciences, and have extra time to make wacky inventions and volunteer with kids, teaching them how to do similar things.

I am careful to take on projects only if they are likely to make me happier. The latest was building the red telephone for this []...

Bengie (1121981) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @05:37PM (#49501635)

Re:The third factor (Score:2)

If you have no peers, you can get lonely and no amount of attitude can completely help a human who is lonely.

lkcl (517947) <> on Saturday April 18, 2015 @11:42AM (#49500295) Homepage

Read "Outliers" (Score:5, Informative)

this is nothing new: i believe the same study was the basis of the famous book "Outliers", which is a fascinating study of what makes people successful. if i recall correctly, it's completely the opposite of what people expect: your genes *do* matter. your attitude *does* matter. your circumstances *do* matter. working hard *does* matter. and luck matters as well. but it's all of these things - luck, genetics, circumstances *and* hard work - that make for the ultimate success story. bill gates is one of the stories described. he had luck and opportunity - by being born at just the right time when personal computing was beginning - and circumstances - by going to one of the very very few schools in the USA that actually had a computer available (for me, that opportunity was when i was 8: i went to one of the very very few secondary schools in the UK that had a computer: a Pet 3032).

so, yeah - it's not a very popular view, particularly in the USA, as it goes against the whole "anyone can make it big" concept. but, put simply, the statistics show that it's a combination of a whole *range* of factors, all of which contribute, that make up success. just "being intelligent" simply is not enough.

drinkypoo (153816) <> on Saturday April 18, 2015 @02:27PM (#49500967) Homepage Journal

Re:Read "Outliers" (Score:4, Insightful)

bill gates is one of the stories described. he had luck and opportunity - by being born at just the right time when personal computing was beginning - and circumstances - by going to one of the very very few schools in the USA that actually had a computer available

Yes, and by having rich parents. That is the single most reliable predictor of economic success. As such, it is anything but surprising that Gates was successful.

PeterM from Berkeley (15510) <> on Saturday April 18, 2015 @11:44AM (#49500299) Journal

Scientific American begs to differ (Score:3)

Some ten or fifteen years ago, Scientific American published an article about the positive correlation of "general intelligence" with virtually every measure of success in life.

Like earning enough money to be comfortable, having the emotional intelligence to have a successful marriage, etc.

They showed that "general intelligence" which is correlated with but not directly measured by things like SAT scores, was basically a ticket to (or highly correlated with) a good life, and even good health.

And the article was mighty persuasive.


the_skywise (189793) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @12:03PM (#49500387)

The problem isn't intelligence - per se (Score:5, Insightful)

(See? I used per se, so I'm... oh never mind...)

Intelligence and being highly observant are great skills both in society and from an evolutionary/survivalist standpoint.

But in a society I've found it brings up two downsides:

Guilt, because your intelligence allows you to avoid pain or achieve a higher level of comfort in society. You weren't "superman" you just made rational choices based upon your understanding of how the system works and now your friends and family are suffering because they didn't and you want to help them which requires more energy and effort or you can't which means your intelligence has limits and all you can do is watch them suffer.

Stress and anxiety. Once you figure out that you can problem solve and improve your quality of life it's natural, like any athlete, to grow and push your boundaries. But intellectual pursuits aren't as cut and dried as physical ones - It's easy to know that you can only bench press 200lbs and that's what you need to work on - Less so when you're trying to solve problems like familial and social discord but nobody will listen or trying to improve your company's fortunes by making proper investment choices. More to the point, I'm an engineer and there's nothing more frustrating trying to solve a problem you've encountered with your design that YOU pushed for, can't figure out why it's not working, might not work AT ALL and the boss is breathing down your neck (oh and the company is on the line). There's plenty of days I've driven by a building crew and daydreamed about just running the earth mover or driving a dump truck.

In an Agrarian society - in a pre-industrialized world these issues just didn't come about for intellectualism - Partially because it wasn't as much of a survival skill. (And that's probably why steampunk is so romanticized today)

reboot246 (623534) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @07:29PM (#49502135) Homepage

This may be why (Score:5, Interesting)

The danger when you have the intelligence to do anything you want to do in life is doing nothing. You hesitate to focus narrowly on one field of study because that means you'll have less time for all the others.

I won't say what my IQ is, but it's up there. My grades, especially in science courses, were practically perfect. People were expecting me to go into all kinds of careers, including medicine, chemistry, physics, computer science, etc.. But, I'm interested in everything! Always have been. I chose a career that didn't need much thought so I could keep up with what was happening in science and technology. It's worked. How many 62 year olds do you know who build their own computers? Or just bought two new microscopes? Or diagnose their own problems before going to the doctor?

I know a lot of successful people. Most of them have very little time for fishing, hunting, camping, going to ball games, watching television, listening to music, playing with the children & grandchildren, or working in the garden. I have all the time in the world to enjoy life. Isn't that what it's all about?

Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18, 2015 @01:12PM (#49500661)

Re:*Grabs a bowl of popcorn* (Score:5, Interesting)

I do not know if I qualify as a genius, but I would like to think I am above average in intelligence. I topped my undergraduate class in engineering, scored near perfect score in my GRE (2380/2400, back when it actually included an analytical section with puzzles), and was a graduate student in quantum computing at a top school.

I subsequently dropped out because I realized two things:

  1. Most of my classmates were really good at the subject (e.g., people who won International Math and Physics Olympiads). They started their PhDs at a really young age, and were almost bored by the coursework. Homework that I would spend a Saturday doing were completed while still in class by these bored teenagers.
  2. Most of them really loved the subject (i.e., people who loved doing physics at the expense of all else, such as dating, money, or having a social life). Or the subject was so easy that they had the time to pursue other things.

I realized I neither loved physics unconditionally nor was I good enough at it to warrant the pursuit of a PhD, not to mention the subsequent post doc and so on. All this happened at the same time that I fell in love with my now-wife, started a company, and subsequently got into management consulting to make money instead.

I do not mean to phrase this as a tautology (i.e., doing a PhD is mutually exclusive from making money or having a social life), but in my experience, the biggest sacrifice was watching classmates who were relatively mediocre (in my opinion) get "business" degrees and do exceedingly well in life in terms of money and relationships.

Most of my cohort completed their PhDs and now have very successful academic careers. I still love math, theoretical physics, and computer science. I keep myself apprised of most of the publications in the field, and occasionally, write a paper or two myself, and I certainly miss the challenge of advanced math and physics. I still envy my peers, and I am sure some of them envy me.

But now being in an unhappy relationship, being a parent, having the burdens of a pointless life (the hardest thing I do is a spreadsheet that just helps some fool company make millions of dollars), I question my past choices. So much possibility lay ahead of me, and I gave it all up for what? For a few bucks, beers, and a few lays?

I'm probably considered successful by the measure of the quintessential American dream -- by ~30, I was a rising star at a top management consulting firm, had over 7 figures to my name, owned a large home in one of the best neighborhoods in Boston, and had a beautiful wife and son. I drove expensive cars, wore bespoke suits and expensive watches, spent time mountaineering in the Alps and the Himalayas, and traveled the world. But still, I always felt that I had missed something. That I will never come ahead of time. That no matter how successful I become in life, I will probably never have a theorem named after me or spend my days basking in the beauty of math.

No amount of sex or expensive liquor or material goods can equate the joys of just proving a theorem. I will forever have this knowledge, that I could have been more, and chose less. My life now reminds me of a Pink Floyd lyrics -- "Did you exchange a walk-on part in a war for a lead role in a cage?".

justthinkit (954982) <> on Saturday April 18, 2015 @07:51PM (#49502227) Homepage Journal

Here is what you are missing (Score:3)

Here is what you are missing -- helping others.

Most of the activities of my life have been trivially easy for decades. Helping others remains challenging.

If you really are "so smart", you are able to see what a disaster this world is today. Well, get busy changing it. You will be up against the most powerful, greedy, selfish & moneyed people on the face of the Earth. Challenge enough for me. What about you?

Spugglefink (1041680) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @05:35PM (#49501619)

Re:The biggest problem: the "long view" (Score:5, Interesting)

I can relate to that. People who live more in the moment are happier, because the long view always involves decline, death, and dying. I'm petting and really enjoying my dog, and somewhere I'm thinking how I might have another eight years before I have a 120 pound problem who is pissing and shitting huge logs everywhere, who is going to be a royal bitch to dig a hole for one day. I'm having sex with my wife, and somewhere I'm thinking how much it's going to suck looking at her when she's 80. The big picture long view always seems to have a down side, and it's depressing.

I can relate to the expectations thing too. Everybody looks up to you, and a lot of them are jealous of you, and it makes it that much harder to choose an ordinary life. I'm a truck driver, and I like my profession fine, but I constantly feel a need to apologize for not owning the trucking company or being a professor or something; for not aiming higher in general. I've found a lot of people don't like me, because they don't think they're good enough for me for some reason, and yet I feel the same toward them. I'd love to just be normal, and not have to think so much about everything. Too much knowledge can be crippling, instead of helpful. It's hard to invest in a business idea, knowing every conceivable way it might fail, and what all the odds are.

My mother was even more intelligent than I am, and she died young, of alcoholism. She was a miserable woman.

Intelligence is overrated. One side effect for me is that I can never enjoy the opiate of a nice handy sky daddy to make me feel less infinitesimal in the scheme of things. We evolved to see sky daddies in everything, and I have the same need in my brain as any other human, but there's nothing to plug into it. I haven't found the religion yet that wasn't just totally inconsistent and goofy.

captjc (453680) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @10:06PM (#49502711)

Re:The biggest problem: the "long view" (Score:3)

That has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with outlook and perspective. Lets just say, I'm a pretty smart guy and the best piece of advice that I was ever given was to focus on the now. It is easy to foresee problems and possible scenarios and it is good to take measures to prevent the obvious. However, the sooner you realize that shit happens that you will never be able to plan for or there are simply various inevitable outcomes that will be sad and painful that you simply will not want to deal with, the sooner you will realize that there is just no point in worrying about them.

It has almost become a catchphrase for me, "Cross that bridge when you get to it." Focus on what can be dealt with now. Try to keep yourself in the best possible situation that you can and don't worry about what is around the corner until it is within sight to actually deal with it. Friends will come and go, loved ones will leave you, cars and tools will fail you when you need them the most, at some point your job will end, and eventually you will die. These are simple truths of life but if you spend even a second worrying about any of them before there is anything you can do about them, it is purely wasted energy that could be put to use tackling the problems that you do have.

I'm not saying it is easy to change the way you look at the world. It can take some work if not serious effort and it is easy to let yourself fall into ruts of depression and self-loathing. I know, I was there. That is nothing but perverse mental masturbation that does nothing but waste your energy and destroy what little happiness you can achieve. If you can learn to refocus yourself to only what you can affect, the happier and more productive you will become.

Why is everyone so busy?

Posted by

[Note: This item comes from friend Judi Clark. DLH]

Why is everyone so busy?
Time poverty is a problem partly of perception and partly of distribution
Dec 20 2014

THE predictions sounded like promises: in the future, working hours would be short and vacations long. “Our grandchildren”, reckoned John Maynard Keynes in 1930, would work around “three hours a day”—and probably only by choice. Economic progress and technological advances had already shrunk working hours considerably by his day, and there was no reason to believe this trend would not continue. Whizzy cars and ever more time-saving tools and appliances guaranteed more speed and less drudgery in all parts of life. Social psychologists began to fret: whatever would people do with all their free time?

This has not turned out to be one of the world’s more pressing problems. Everybody, everywhere seems to be busy. In the corporate world, a “perennial time-scarcity problem” afflicts executives all over the globe, and the matter has only grown more acute in recent years, say analysts at McKinsey, a consultancy firm. These feelings are especially profound among working parents. As for all those time-saving gizmos, many people grumble that these bits of wizardry chew up far too much of their days, whether they are mouldering in traffic, navigating robotic voice-messaging systems or scything away at e-mail—sometimes all at once.

Tick, tock

Why do people feel so rushed? Part of this is a perception problem. On average, people in rich countries have more leisure time than they used to. This is particularly true in Europe, but even in America leisure time has been inching up since 1965, when formal national time-use surveys began. American men toil for pay nearly 12 hours less per week, on average, than they did 40 years ago—a fall that includes all work-related activities, such as commuting and water-cooler breaks. Women’s paid work has risen a lot over this period, but their time in unpaid work, like cooking and cleaning, has fallen even more dramatically, thanks in part to dishwashers, washing machines, microwaves and other modern conveniences, and also to the fact that men shift themselves a little more around the house than they used to.

The problem, then, is less how much time people have than how they see it. Ever since a clock was first used to synchronise labour in the 18th century, time has been understood in relation to money. Once hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting, saving or using them profitably. When economies grow and incomes rise, everyone’s time becomes more valuable. And the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems.

Individualistic cultures, which emphasise achievement over affiliation, help cultivate this time-is-money mindset. This creates an urgency to make every moment count, notes Harry Triandis, a social psychologist at the University of Illinois. Larger, wealthy cities, with their higher wage rates and soaring costs of living, raise the value of people’s time further still. New Yorkers are thriftier with their minutes—and more harried—than residents of Nairobi. London’s pedestrians are swifter than those in Lima. The tempo of life in rich countries is faster than that of poor countries. A fast pace leaves most people feeling rushed. “Our sense of time”, observed William James in his 1890 masterwork, “The Principles of Psychology”, “seems subject to the law of contrast.”

When people see their time in terms of money, they often grow stingy with the former to maximise the latter. Workers who are paid by the hour volunteer less of their time and tend to feel more antsy when they are not working. In an experiment carried out by Sanford DeVoe and Julian House at the University of Toronto, two different groups of people were asked to listen to the same passage of music—the first 86 seconds of “The Flower Duet” from the opera “Lakmé”. Before the song, one group was asked to gauge their hourly wage. The participants who made this calculation ended up feeling less happy and more impatient while the music was playing. “They wanted to get to the end of the experiment to do something that was more profitable,” Mr DeVoe explains.

The relationship between time, money and anxiety is something Gary S. Becker noticed in America’s post-war boom years. Though economic progress and higher wages had raised everyone’s standard of living, the hours of “free” time Americans had been promised had come to nought. “If anything, time is used more carefully today than a century ago,” he noted in 1965. He found that when people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours, because working becomes a more profitable use of time. So the rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.

The harried leisure class

That economic prosperity would create feelings of time poverty looked a little odd in the 1960s, given all those new time-saving blenders and lawnmowers. But there is a distinct correlation between privilege and pressure. In part, this is a conundrum of wealth: though people may be earning more money to spend, they are not simultaneously earning more time to spend it in. This makes time—that frustratingly finite, unrenewable resource—feel more precious.


[Jun 15, 2013] Messages Galore, but No Time to Think By PHYLLIS KORKKI

"In the name of simplicity, I even try to avoid instant messaging. But I also can’t help worrying that I am missing out. "
June 15, 2013 | NYT

I’M old enough to remember a simpler time in the office, when talking — whether in person or on the phone — was the main way to communicate. I once had a job where I filled out those pink “While You Were Out” slips for employees who had stepped away from their desks.

Then, in the 1990s, came e-mail, and things were never the same. Besides delivering a serious blow to the sellers of those pieces of paper, e-mail made communicating with people incredibly — and, at first, delightfully — easy.

Now, a few decades later, people constantly complain that their e-mail in-boxes are unmanageable. And many more technologies have joined the workplace party. We can now use cellphones, texts, instant messaging, text messaging, social media, corporate intranets and cloud applications to communicate at work.

Something may have been lost as we adopted these new communication tools: the ability to concentrate.

“Nobody can think anymore because they’re constantly interrupted,” said Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor and author of “Sleeping With Your Smartphone.” “Technology has enabled this expectation that we always be on.” Workers fear the repercussions that could result if they are unavailable, she said.

The intermingling of work and personal life adds to the onslaught, as people communicate about personal topics during the workday, and about work topics when they are at home.

According to a 2011 article in The Ergonomics Open Journal, electronic communication tools can demand constant switching, which contributes to a feeling of “discontinuity” in the workplace. On the other hand, people sometimes deliberately introduce interruptions into their day as a way to reduce boredom and to socialize, the article said.

We’re only beginning to understand the workplace impact of new communication tools. The use of such technology in the office is “less rational than we would like to think,” said Steve Whittaker a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Sometimes, “it’s one person who’s an evangelist,” he said. “They will start using a particular thing, and they will bring other people along with them.”

More tech-oriented types might favor the latest new communication “toy,” while others, like me, are less enthusiastic. In the name of simplicity, I even try to avoid instant messaging. But I also can’t help worrying that I am missing out.

Plenty of workplace advice focuses on how we, as individuals, can manage our technology, but in many cases, this is a collective, team-level issue, Professor Perlow said.

As Professor Whittaker put it, “We haven’t stabilized our regular practices,” and these may need to be negotiated among workers.

It’s important to distinguish between collaborative and one-on-one communication, he said. Cloud-based systems are meant for sharing and editing documents, and they can enable people in different cities to work together in real time. Internal social media pages can be useful for seeking and sharing knowledge.

But when one person wants to communicate with another privately, e-mail remains the go-to method, Professor Whittaker said. That’s why it is nearly universal, despite a general yearning for something better.

To lessen the disruptive nature of e-mail and other messages, teams need to discuss how to alter their work process to allow blocks of time where they can disconnect entirely, Professor Perlow said. “I don’t think you can do it without leadership support,” she added.

MAYBE more managers, consulting with their teams, need to set up clear guidelines for communication. When is it best to use the cloud? When is it best to use e-mail, or instant messaging? And when is it acceptable, even preferable, to turn off all technology? Not that managers need to be dictators, but a little clarity can lead to much more productivity.

Making it a priority to learn how to use the latest tools more effectively is a good idea, too. For example, how do those filters that help prioritize messages really work?

And let’s never forget the value of face-to-face, or voice-to-voice, communication. An actual unrehearsed conversation — requiring sustained attention and spontaneous reactions — may be old-fashioned, but it just might turn up something new.

[May 22, 2013] Present Shock And The Loss Of History And Context

Zero Hedge

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

In his new book, Douglas Rushkoff examines the telescoping of time and context wrought by ubiquitous digital technologies.

One of the few observers who is able to articulate a coherent critical account of American culture is Douglas Rushkoff. His new must-read book is Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (print edition) and (Kindle edition).

I have long found inspiration and insight in Rushkoff's work, especially his keen understanding of the pathologies of consumerism. In my 2009 book Survival+, I wrote:

Rushkoff's reply to an interview question on the consequences of ubiquitous marketing reveals how media/marketing has created an unquestioned politics of experience in which one's identity and sense of self is constructed almost entirely by what one buys:

"Children are being adultified because our economy is depending on them to make purchasing decisions. So they're essentially the victims of a marketing and capitalist machine gone awry. You know, we need to expand, expand, expand. There is no such thing as enough in our current economic model and kids are bearing the brunt of that.... So they're isolated, they're alone, they're desperate. It's a sad and lonely feeling....The net effect of all of this marketing, all of this disorienting marketing, all of the shock media, all of this programming designed to untether us from a sense of self, is a loss of autonomy. You know, we no longer are the active source of our own experience or our own choices. Instead, we succumb to the notion that life is a series of product purchases that have been laid out and whose qualities and parameters have been pre-established."

In my view, this is a brilliant analysis of the rot at the heart of the American project.

In his new book, Rushkoff examines the telescoping of time and context wrought by ubiquitous digital technologies. We're always accessible, always connected and every channel is always on; this overload affects not just our ability to process information but our culture and the way media and marketing are designed and delivered.

The title consciously plays off the influential 1970 book by Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, which posited that our innate ability to process change was limited even as the rate of change in our post-industrial world increased. That rate of change would soon overwhelm our capacity to process new inputs and adapt to them.

In Rushkoff's view, we've reached that future: the speed of change and the demands of the present are disorienting us in profound ways.

We all know what stress feels like: it often causes our view to narrow to the present stressor, and we lose perspective and the ability to "make sense" of anything beyond managing the immediate situation.

Rushkoff identifies five symptoms of present shock:

  1. Narrative collapse - the loss of linear stories and their replacement with both crass reality programming and post-narrative shows like The Simpsons.
  2. Digiphrenia – digitally provoked mental chaos as technology lets us be in more than one place at any one moment. As Rushkoff notes in this chapter: Our boss isn't the guy in the corner office, but the PDA in our pocket. Our taskmaster is depersonalized and internalized.
  3. Overwinding – trying to squish huge timescales into much smaller ones, for example, packing a year’s worth of retail sales expectations into a single Black Friday event.
  4. Fractalnoia – making sense of our world entirely in the present tense, by drawing connections between things with weak causal relationships, for example Big Data, which excels at identifying correlations but is utterly incapable of identifying cause amidst the correlations.
  5. Apocalypto – the intolerance for presentism leads us to fantasize a grand finale, the cultural equivalent of a "market-clearing event."

As Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote in her review: "How do we shield ourselves from distraction, or gravitate to what really matters?"

Studies have shown that our innate ability to remember people and identify their relationships with others is limited to around 100 people--the size of a village or combat company. We undoubtedly have similar innate limitations on how many channels of input we can absorb.

Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations) calls this filter failure, his term for what used to be called information overload. Our filters become overloaded and we lose the ability to "make sense" of what's going on around us.

As the phenomenologists discovered in the 20th century, our basic coping mechanism is to separate the world (and inputs) into three basic categories: the focal point, the foreground and the deep background. Being unable to sort out which input belongs in the three spaces leads to disorientation and poor decisions.

The parallels between filter failure and stress are not coincidental, as we handle filter failure and present shock the same way we handle stress: we limit inputs and make a concerted effort to reorient our awareness and context, what some call "be still and know."

Another troubling parallel to present shock is addiction. People now respond to texts, emails, alerts and phone calls like rats in the proverbial cage with the lever that releases another tab of cocaine: they over-stimulate themselves to death but are incapable of restraining their impulse for more.

The "obvious" solution is to turn off inputs as a way of restoring our ability to live in a present without novelty and distraction. This is akin to withdrawal from a powerful opiate, and so we should not be surprised that there are now treatment facilities for kids who need to detox from digital inputs.

Rushkoff is especially attuned to the distortions in our experience of time created by digital media-communication present shock: "Time in the digital era is no longer linear but disembodied and associative. The past is not something behind us on the timeline but dispersed through the sea of information."

In effect, change no longer flows linearly like time anymore, it flows in all directions at once.

History and meaningful context are both fatally disrupted by this non-linear flow of time and narrative. Is it any wonder that we now read about young well-educated people who do not understand the meaning of "policy"? To understand policy requires a grasp of the histories and narratives that led to the policy, and the linear, causally-linked way that policy is designed to solve or ameliorate a specific problem or challenge.

If the causal chains of history and narrative are disrupted, then how can anyone fashion a meaningful context for actions and narratives, and effectively frame problems and solutions? If everything is equally valid in a non-linear flood of data, then what roles can authenticity, experience and knowledge play in making sense of our world?

These are knotty, complex issues, and you will find much to constructively ponder in Present Shock.

[May 19, 2013] Faced With Overload, a Need to Find Focus by Tony Schwartz

For more than a decade, the most significant ritual in my work life has been to take on the most important task of the day as my first activity, for 90 minutes, without interruption, followed by a renewal break. I do so because mornings are when I have the highest energy and the fewest distractions.

... Far and away the biggest work challenges most of us now face are cognitive overload and difficulty focusing on one thing at a time.

Whenever I singularly devote the first 90 minutes of my day to the most challenging or important task – they’re often one and the same — I get a ton accomplished.

Following a deliberate break – even just a few minutes — I feel refreshed and ready to face the rest of the day. When I don’t start that way, my day is never quite as good, and I sometimes head home at night wondering what I actually did while I was so busy working.

Performing at a sustainably high level in a world of relentlessly rising complexity requires that we manage not just our time but also our energy – not just how many hours we work, but when we work, on what and how we feel along the way.

Fail to take control of your days — deliberately, consciously and purposefully — and you’ll be swept along on a river of urgent but mostly unimportant demands.

It’s all too easy to rationalize that we’re powerless victims in the face of expectation from others, but doing that is itself a poor use of energy. Far better to focus on what we can influence, even if there are times when it’s at the margins.

Small moves, it turns out, can make a significant difference.

When it comes to doing the most important thing first each morning, for example, it’s best to make that choice, along with your other top priorities, the night before.

Plainly, there are going to be times that something gets in your way and it’s beyond your control. If you can reschedule for later, even 30 minutes, or 45, do that. If you can’t, so be it. Tomorrow is another day.

If you’re a night owl and you have more energy later in the day, consider scheduling your most important work then. But weigh the risk carefully, because as your day wears on, the number of pulls on your attention will almost surely have increased.

Either way, it’s better to work highly focused for short periods of time, with breaks in between, than to be partially focused for long periods of time. Think of it as a sprint, rather than a marathon. You can push yourself to your limits for short periods of time, so long as you have a clear stopping point. And after a rest, you can sprint again.

How you’re feeling at any given time profoundly influences how effectively you’re capable of working, but most of us pay too little attention to these inner signals.

Fatigue is the most basic drag on productivity, but negative emotions like frustration, irritability and anxiety are equally pernicious. A simple but powerful way to check in with yourself is to intermittently rate the quantity and quality of your energy — say at midmorning, and midafternoon — on a scale from 1 to 10.

If you’re a 5 or below on either one, the best thing you can do is take a break.

Even just breathing deeply for as little as one minute – in to a count of three, out to a count of six – can quiet your mind, calm your emotions and clear your bloodstream of the stress hormone cortisol.

Learn to manage your energy more skillfully, and you’ll get more done, in less time, at a higher level of focus. You’ll feel better — and better about yourself — at the end of the day.

About the Author

Tony Schwartz is the chief executive of the Energy Project and the author, most recently, of “Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live.” Twitter: @tonyschwartz

Anne-Marie Hislop, Chicago

The key is figuring our when we are most productive and focused. Although a morning person, I need early time for my rituals - exercise, shower, coffee, and NYT online (along with pop-ins at other sites). Then, by time I get to work around 8AM I will have my most focused, productive hours.

I also find that standing while I work on my computer, which I do more and more when I can (don't have a way to type extensively while standing) energizes me and helps me focus.

John Lamont, Pennsylvania

Frankly I think the core premise of the article, how to get more "done", needs to be questioned, especially in the context to which it speaks, the corporate environment. We would be far better served if Mr. Schwarz's audience spent that 1st 30 minutes of their day sitting back and thinking about what they do, who it's really for, what are the consequences of what they and their company do, and is it morally and ecologically ethical.

In the grand scheme of things I don't doubt mankind is now better off than it was 2,000 or even 500 years ago, but in our relentless drive to produce, consume and sell we have developed, and continue to develop technologies and complex global social interactions that have a good chance of setting us back to the stone age.

Let's not be in such a hurry getting wherever we think we're going and spend a bit more time pondering about where it is we actually want to be and who we want to be when we get there.

When Android Ate My Best Friends by Carla Schroder

Everyone has a cell phone these days. Out here in my little corner of the world, in a county that competes with the neighboring county for the poorest in the state, everyone can somehow afford smartphones with generous data plans. I have no idea what people's eye colors are anymore, or if they even have eyes, because all I see are the tops of their heads as they are bent over their tiny screens. This stuff is not cheap-- I don't know anyone whose monthly bite is under a hundred dollars. Which is why I have a cheapo TracFone, because I refuse to pay that much. Plus I like hoarding minutes, so I turn it off. I don't have to be in constant contact with my eleventeen bestest friends at all times.

Michelle, Ma Bell

American telecoms are special beasts. Back in the olden days we had a single giant regulated monopoly, AT&T. Technological progress was non-existent, and stuck at a level barely above Alexander Graham Bell's original prototype. We could not own our telephones, but had to lease them from the phone company, which made those old phones some of the most valuable hardware in existence because we kept paying for them year after year after year. We could not add extensions, or attach any other equipment. The one upside was rock-solid service, which set American telephone service apart from most other countries, where unreliability was the norm.

Then Ma Bell was broken up and we got competition, sort of. We never got a choice of carriers for local service, but long distance became competitive. Though again only sort-of, because in-state calls cost more than cross-country calls, and other oddities. Now with mobile phones everywhere a lot of people don't even bother with land lines, and they'e all happy at getting free long distance, even though it's not really free and they're paying a lot more. But even though mobile service costs more, it includes more, like worse call quality and no-service areas. I estimate that 40% of all cell traffic is "What? Are you there? Hello? What?"

When We Dialed Telephones

Where was I going with all this? Oh yeah, ubiquity. My grandmother had a single black dial telephone, and it sat on a special table next to a chair in her entry hall. A phone call was a bit of an event-- she couldn't Web surf while half-listening, or watch TV, or go shopping, or put people on hold and juggle multiple calls. She had conversations, one at a time. She couldn't just pick up and call someone when she felt like it because she was on a party line. That is a shared phone line, which meant everyone who shared the line could eavesdrop on your calls. When I grew up the other giant time- and attention-pit-of-suck, television, was not yet everywhere, and a lot of our friends did not have TVs. So when we got together we talked to each other. With eye contact and everything.

Now we're all proud that Android dominates mobile phones, rah rah Linux. Little kids have their own phones, and again I marvel at how much people are willing to pay for their mobile fix. Sure, for some it's a necessity, but in my somewhat humble opinion most of the time it's more akin to an addiction. It's like the rats that push the button that stimulates the pleasure centers of their brains, and then starve to death because they won't push the food button. Humans just plain love to push buttons, and are willing to pay top dollar for the privilege-- vending machines, video poker, serial channel-surfing on the TV, mobile phones; give them buttons to push and they're happy for hours.

Woa, you might be thinking, get off the grumpy train, because mobile phones are useful tools! And you are right. But I'm still going to be grumpy at people who won't turn them off when we're visiting or doing an activity together. You know those people who have to answer the phone no matter what they're doing? Showering, sleeping, birthing babies? They're a thousand times worse with mobile phones. In the olden days it was considered rude to leave the TV on when people came to visit. Unless they came to watch a program, of course. Remember when call waiting was all new and special? And an insult, like whoever you were talking to was hoping someone better than you would interrupt your call. Now the phone is the TV, along with a million other interruptions, distractions, delights, and portability. We can't escape the things.

Thinking. No Really.

One of the things I love about computer nerds is most of them understand the need for long stretches of uninterrupted time to think, and to concentrate deeply on a task. It is impossible to master a new skill or solve a problem when you're skittering randomly from one activity to the next, never engaging more than the bare surface of your consciousness. It's unsatisfying, because you never accomplish anything. Multi-tasking is a myth. It is the very rare human who can perform two or more tasks at once. A "multi-tasker" is someone who juggles multiple chores and does a poor job at all of them. I prefer total immersion: full attention and no distractions.

Magic happens in your brain when you achieve that state of total focus. It's almost a meditative state. Obstacles fall away and your path become wide and clear. It's as though you're forging new neural pathways and amping up your brainpower. Single-tasking has superpowers.

When Television Ate My Best Friend

The more things change, the more they stay the same, so please enjoy Linda Ellerbee's classic When Television Ate My Best Friend:

"At last I knew what had happened to Lucy. The television ate her. It must have been a terrible thing to see. Now my parents were thinking of getting one. I was scared. They didn’t understand what television could do."

Beginning Android Programming

Pushing buttons is fun, and building the buttons is a million times more fun. Try Juliet Kemp's excellent introduction to Android programming:

Android Programming for Beginners: Part 1

Android Programming for Beginners: Part 2

[Apr 28, 2012] Lessons from Sheryl Sandberg Stop Working More Than 40 Hours a Week

You may think you're getting more accomplished by working longer hours. You're probably wrong.

There's been a flurry of recent coverage praising Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, for leaving the office every day at 5:30 p.m. to be with her kids. Apparently she's been doing this for years, but only recently "came out of the closet," as it were.

What's insane is that Sandberg felt the need to hide the fact, since there's a century of research establishing the undeniable fact that working more than 40 hours per week actually decreases productivity.

In the early 1900s, Ford Motor ran dozens of tests to discover the optimum work hours for worker productivity. They discovered that the "sweet spot" is 40 hours a week–and that, while adding another 20 hours provides a minor increase in productivity, that increase only lasts for three to four weeks, and then turns negative.

Anyone who's spent time in a corporate environment knows that what was true of factory workers a hundred years ago is true of office workers today. People who put in a solid 40 hours a week get more done than those who regularly work 60 or more hours.

The workaholics (and their profoundly misguided management) may think they're accomplishing more than the less fanatical worker, but in every case that I've personally observed, the long hours result in work that must be scrapped or redone.

Accounting for Burnout What's more, people who consistently work long work weeks get burned out and inevitably start having personal problems that get in the way of getting things done.

I remember a guy in one company I worked for who used the number of divorces in his group as a measure of its productivity. Believe it or not, his top management reportedly considered this a valid metric. What's ironic (but not surprising) is that the group itself accomplished next to nothing.

In fact, now that I think about it, that's probably why he had to trot out such an absurd (and, let's face it, evil) metric.

Proponents of long work weeks often point to the even longer average work weeks in countries like Thailand, Korea, and Pakistan–with the implication that the longer work weeks are creating a competitive advantage.

Europe's Ban on 50-Hour Weeks However, the facts don't bear this out. In six of the top 10 most competitive countries in the world (Sweden, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom), it's illegal to demand more than a 48-hour work week. You simply don't see the 50-, 60-, and 70-hour work weeks that have become de rigeur in some parts of the U.S. business world.

If U.S. managers were smart, they'd end this "if you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming to work on Sunday" idiocy. If you want employees (salaried or hourly) to get the most done–in the shortest amount of time and on a consistent basis–40 hours a week is just about right.

In other words, nobody should be apologizing for leaving at work at a reasonable hour like 5:30 p.m. In fact, people should be apologizing if they're working too long each week–because it's probably making the team less effective overall.

[Apr 07, 2011] Rational Inattention

These models are interesting, but the mathematics underneath them can be challenging (here's a taste):

'Rational Inattention' Guides Overloaded Brains, Helps Economists Understand Market Behavior, by Antonella Tutino, Economic Letter, FRB Dallas: Between Internet news sources, social media and email, people are awash in information, most of it accessible at near-zero cost. Yet, humans possess only a finite capacity to process all of it. The average email user, for example, receives dozens of messages per day. The messages can’t all receive equal attention. How carefully does someone read an email from a sibling or friend before crafting a reply? How closely does a person read an email from the boss?

Limitations on the ability to process information force people to make choices regarding the subjects to which they pay more or less attention. Economists have long acknowledged the existence of human cognitive capacities, but only in recent years have models embodying such limits known as “rational inattention” found their way into mainstream macroeconomics.

Rational inattention models have a broad range of applications. They may reconcile relatively unchanged prices and volatile ones and how the two play out in aggregate demand in the U.S. economy. Moreover, such models can capture salient features of the business cycle, providing a rationale for sharp contractions or slower expansions. Finally, rational inattention models have significant implications for monetary policy. Since the focus of these models revolves around formation of peoples’ expectations, understanding how individuals perceive the economy is instrumental to policymakers’ efforts to achieve output and price stabilization objectives.

Rational Inattention: A Primer

One macroeconomic school of thought—known as rational expectations—assumes that people fully and quickly process all freely available information. By comparison, under rational inattention theory, information is also fully and freely available, but people lack the capability to quickly absorb it all and translate it into decisions. Rational inattention is based on a simple observation: Attention is a scarce resource and, as such, it must be budgeted wisely.[1]

[Dec 29, 2010] The Shallows What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Part of the problem is information overload and it should be called by the author as such. The other part is that deluge of Internet information does not mean high quality of information. There is specific "Google effect" when pages are created just to extract advertising fees and promoted using "link farms" to get high Google rating for the topic. And spending time on junk is spending time on junk whether it is electronic or not. It's just easier with computer. Nicklaus Carr easier article in Atlantic Is Google Making Us Stupid- - Magazine - The Atlantic covers the same ground.

William Timothy Lukeman Death by a thousand distracting cuts, June 8, 2010

In this short but informative, thought-provoking book, Nicholas Carr presents an argument I've long felt to be true on a humanist level, but supports it with considerable scientific research. In fact, he speaks as a longtime computer enthusiast, one who's come to question what he once wholeheartedly embraced ... and even now, he takes care to distinguish between the beneficial & detrimental aspects of the Internet.

The argument in question?

The studies that Carr presents are troubling, to say the least. From what has been gleaned to date, it's clear that the brain retains a certain amount of plasticity throughout life -- that is, it can be reshaped, and the way that we think can be reshaped, for good or for ill. Thus, if the brain is trained to respond to & take pleasure in the faster pace of the digital world, it is reshaped to favor that approach to experiencing the world as a whole. More, it comes to crave that experience, as the body increasingly craves more of anything it's trained to respond to pleasurably & positively. The more you use a drug, the more you need to sustain even the basic rush.

And where does that leave the mind shaped by deep reading? The mind that immerses itself in the universe of a book, rather than simply looking for a few key phrases & paragraphs? The mind that develops through slow, quiet contemplation, mulling over ideas in their entirety, and growing as a result? The mature mind that ponders possibilities & consequences, rather than simply going with the bright, dazzling, digital flow?

Nowhere, it seems.

Carr makes it clear that the digital world, like any other technology that undeniably makes parts of life so much easier, is here to stay. All the more reason, then, to approach it warily, suspiciously, and limit its use whenever possible, since it is so ubiquitous. "Yes, but," many will say, "everything is moving so fast that we've got to adapt to it, keep up with it!" Not unlike the Red Queen commenting that it takes all of one's energy & speed to simply remain in one place while running. But what sort of life is that? How much depth does it really have?

Because some aspects of life -- often the most meaningful & rewarding aspects -- require time & depth. Yet the digital world constantly makes us break it into discrete, interchangeable bits that hurtle us forward so rapidly & inexorably that we simply don't have time to stop & think. And before we know it, we're unwilling & even unable to think. Not in any way that allows true self-awareness in any real context.

Emerson once said (as aptly quoted by Carr), "Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind." The danger is that we'll not only willingly, even eagerly, wear those saddles, but that we'll come to desire them & buckle them on ever more tightly, until we feel naked without them. And we'll gladly pay anything to keep them there, even as we lose the capacity to wonder why we ever put them on in the first place.

Most highly recommended!

Devin (Vancouver) - See all my reviews

This book is a more fully fleshed out attempt to answer the question that Carr first posed a couple of years ago in an article titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains explores the ideas of his Google article in much more detail.

To fully understand what the Internet is doing to our brains, we must first understand our brains. Carr highlights results from a variety of iconic and recent studies that illustrate the plasticity of our thinking organs. We see experiments ranging from the severed sensory nerves of monkeys' hands in the 1960s (and their brains subsequent `rewiring') to London taxi drivers whose posterior hippocampuses (the "part of the brain that plays a key role in storing and manipulating spatial represenations of a person's surroudings") were much larger than normal. In short, we see plenty of evidence that the brain can reorganize itself, and is certainly not fixed in one state for all of its adult life.

The Shallows then explores the history of the written word and its explosion due to Gutenberg's invention, and even further back to the argument between Socrates and Plato concerning the value of the written word. Socrates argued that if we committed all of our thoughts to paper, we would not have to remember anything. How do we know this? From the writings of Plato, of course. The soundwaves of Socrates' voice, as wise as he was, cannot travel through time like written words can.

With the first half detailing the brain's plasticity and our species' history with the accumulation of knowledge, Carr sets up the latter half of the book perfectly, and his ideas might be grossly simplified into something like this:

P1: Experiments of brain plasticity have proven that our brains change over time.
P2: We are using the Internet for an increasing amount of our activities, including work, entertainment and commerce.
P3: The Internet is a medium that encourages distractedness and makes our brains inept at remembering.

C: We are all becoming a lot more dependent upon our digital devices, and in doing so, are increasingly distracted in everything we do, both online and off.

Carr's book is a giant caution sign on the side of the road that we ride into the increasingly digital future. The caution sign might be too far behind us already, as we've blazed ahead and rewired our minds to think like computers - logical, task-switching, and distracted at every second of the day. If people in their 30s and 40s (who may have had the Internet for approximately 25-40% of their life times) are experiencing these changes in their brains, imagine the effect the Internet is having on our youth. The Net Generation is defined to be those who have grown up with the Net for more than half their lives. There are some who have had the Internet in 100% of their life spans. Imagine that, never knowing a world without the Internet. Yes, some children are younger than Google. Imagine explaining to your grandchildren that you grew up in a time that didn't have the Internet, let alone the information organizing superpower known as Google.

Will we look back at this period of transition from print to digital and see it as being as momentous as the shift from an oral culture to a print culture? What would Socrates have thought? Have we become lesser human beings, inextricably tied to the addictive external memories of our computers and mobile phones?

Could it be that George W. Bush infamous "the Internets" quote was just a sign of the stupidness to come? Perhaps Bush was ahead of his time. Perhaps the Flynn effect is about to peak, or already has. Could the greatest learning tool ever created be so useful that we forget how to think as we use it?

This is a great book for anyone who's interested in our society as a whole, how our brains work, the effects of technology, and the process of learning. Highly recommended.

J. Edgar Mihelic "Iconoclast, Juggernaut" (Chicago)My wisdom is getting flatter., December 8, 2010 - See all my reviews

Carr, in his epilogue to this work, warns that we as a species have to be 'attentive to what we stand to lose.' In his view, the brain's adaptation to the newer and newer technologies in effect flattens our minds and deprives the individual human of the depth that once could be called wisdom. I agree with him more because I am an avowed Luddite than for the wonderful argument he lays out.

For example, I am enrolled in a science class at this time. As the semester comes to a close, I have an average approaching 100. The problem is that I have actually learned little of the actual science but I have instead learned to utilize the electronic tools built into the shell; the entire evaluative framework of the class is on-line. I have learned how to find the answers but I do not know the answers. Compare this to a literature class, where you have to maybe read and analyze and memorize things and your own wisdom is grown because you build long-term memories that give crucial context. This may not matter, per se, in the terms of the professions of the future, but they have a real impact when it comes to human-to-human interaction or aesthetic enjoyment.

The ironic thing is that I did not read this book. I instead listened to it on my mp3 player as I worked and from time to time flipped through to look at Amazon or Facebook or Gmail. My own mind has developed according to the standards of the internet -- I am hyperlinks not a straight narrative. I can no longer read one book, but have to be 'reading' many simultaneously. This factor will only increase as time and technology advance as we see ourselves more in terms of machines, and the machines start to see themselves in terms of us.


the authors description of our decrease in attention and cognitive capabilities is at times a bit exaggerated.

however, the idea of our mind and thought process physically changing and the descriptions of the evolution of thought are really insightful and coherent.

good book, lot's of stuff to think about.

[Aug 25, 2010] Your Brain on Computers - Overuse of Digital Devices May Lead to Brain Fatigue -

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday and Dianne Bates, 40, juggles three screens. She listens to a few songs on her iPod, then taps out a quick e-mail on her iPhone and turns her attention to the high-definition television.

Break Time vs. Screen Time

Articles in this series examine how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave.

Previous Articles in the Series
Interactive Feature
The Unplugged Challenge
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Loren Frank, a professor of physiology, said downtime lets the brain go over experiences, “solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories.

Just another day at the gym.

As Ms. Bates multitasks, she is also churning her legs in fast loops on an elliptical machine in a downtown fitness center. She is in good company. In gyms and elsewhere, people use phones and other electronic devices to get work done — and as a reliable antidote to boredom.

Cellphones, which in the last few years have become full-fledged computers with high-speed Internet connections, let people relieve the tedium of exercising, the grocery store line, stoplights or lulls in the dinner conversation.

The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.

Ms. Bates, for example, might be clearer-headed if she went for a run outside, away from her devices, research suggests.

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory of the experience.

The researchers suspect that the findings also apply to how humans learn.

“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

At the University of Michigan, a study found that people learned significantly better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment, suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.

Even though people feel entertained, even relaxed, when they multitask while exercising, or pass a moment at the bus stop by catching a quick video clip, they might be taxing their brains, scientists say.

“People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,” said Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist.

Regardless, there is now a whole industry of mobile software developers competing to help people scratch the entertainment itch. Flurry, a company that tracks the use of apps, has found that mobile games are typically played for 6.3 minutes, but that many are played for much shorter intervals. One popular game that involves stacking blocks gets played for 2.2 minutes on average.

Today’s game makers are trying to fill small bits of free time, said Sebastien de Halleux, a co-founder of PlayFish, a game company owned by the industry giant Electronic Arts.

“Instead of having long relaxing breaks, like taking two hours for lunch, we have a lot of these micro-moments,” he said. Game makers like Electronic Arts, he added, “have reinvented the game experience to fit into micro-moments.”

Many business people, of course, have good reason to be constantly checking their phones. But this can take a mental toll. Henry Chen, 26, a self-employed auto mechanic in San Francisco, has mixed feelings about his BlackBerry habits.

“I check it a lot, whenever there is downtime,” Mr. Chen said. Moments earlier, he was texting with a friend while he stood in line at a bagel shop; he stopped only when the woman behind the counter interrupted him to ask for his order.

Mr. Chen, who recently started his business, doesn’t want to miss a potential customer. Yet he says that since he upgraded his phone a year ago to a feature-rich BlackBerry, he can feel stressed out by what he described as internal pressure to constantly stay in contact.

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[Aug 24, 2010] Information Overload

August 25, 2010 | Sra. Weldon

Do you ever wonder if you spend too much time online or find that multitasking makes homework feel like it takes forever? Do you end up getting less sleep because you’re texting, chatting or surfing or because you find that your brain can’t seem to shut itself down for the night?

The NY Times has an entire series devoted to such topics called “Your Brain on Computers.” In An Ugly Toll of Technology: Impatience and Forgetfulness, a Dr. Kimberly Young is referenced for comparing net addiction to eating disorders. Even adults are at risk for various problems involving our ability to parent and nurture as is highlighted by The Risks of Parenting while Plugged in –there was a comparison between said addiction and alcoholism the way a parent might say to an objecting son/daughter “just one more text” while driving.

In Attached to Computers and Paying a Price, our connection to constant information changes our chemistry with dopamine (which is possibly addictive) squirts in our brains and alters our expectations of daily life in terms of boredom. More dangerous are the risks involved in using devices while driving, yet it’s easy to understand how we would reach for them since so many of us are bound to be addicted to them. We read of families missing big business deals, having family fights (and forgetting to pick up kids!) and getting lower grades.

According to the article, “At home, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average, when an hour spent with, say, the Internet and TV simultaneously counts as two hours. That compares with five hours in 1960, say researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Computer users visit an average of 40 Web sites a day, according to research by RescueTime, which offers time-management tools.

As computers have changed, so has the understanding of the human brain. Until 15 years ago, scientists thought the brain stopped developing after childhood. Now they understand that its neural networks continue to develop, influenced by things like learning skills.”

If you’d like to test your own ability to focus, the NY Times features this test. If you think you might be addicted and would like to find out more, check out the Net Addiction site.

For what it’s worth, I think technology can be helpful for practicing Spanish and staying up to date on yoObsession with Computers and InternetObsession with Computers and Internetth Computers and Internetth Computers and Internetat school. It’s even useful for contact between teachers, students and parents (at times). What I take away from the NY Times series is how essential boundaries are in terms of when/where my family and I are plugged in–there have to be concrete limits for us not to get lost and fragmented.

[Nov 25, 2009] Fixed-Schedule Productivity: How I Accomplish a Large Amount of Work in a Small Number of Work Hours

February 15th. 2008 | Study Hacks

My Schedule Should Be Terrible…

I should have an overwhelming, Malox-guzzling, stress-saturated schedule. Here’s why: I’m a graduate student in a demanding program. I’m working on several research papers while also attempting to nail down some key ideas for my dissertation. I’m TA’ing and taking courses. I maintain this blog. I’m a staff writer for Flak Magazine. And to keep things interesting, I’m working on background research for a potential new book project.

You would be reasonable to assume that I must get, on average, 7 - 8 minutes of sleep a night. But you would also be wrong. Let me explain…

For Some Reason It’s Not…

Here is my actual schedule. I work:

That’s it. Unless I’m bored, I have no need to even turn on a computer after 5 during the week or any time on Saturday. I fill these times, instead, doing, well, whatever I want.

How do I balance an ambitious work load with an ambitiously sparse schedule? It’s a simple idea I call fixed-schedule productivity.

Fixed-Schedule Productivity

The system work as follows:

  1. Choose a schedule of work hours that you think provides the ideal balance of effort and relaxation.
  2. Do whatever it takes to avoid violating this schedule.

This sounds simple. But think about it for a moment. Satisfying rule 2 is not easy. If you took your current projects, obligations, and work habits, you’d probably fall well short of satisfying your ideal work schedule. Here’s a simple truth: to stick to your ideal schedule will require some drastic actions. For example, you may have to:

In the abstract, these all seem like hard things to do. But when you have the focus of a specific goal — “I do not want to work past 5 on week days!” — you’d be surprised by how much easier it becomes deploy these strategies in your daily life.

Let’s look at an example…

Case Study: My Schedule

My schedule provides a good case study. To reach my relatively small work hour limit, I have to be careful with how I go about my day. I see enough bleary-eyed insomniacs around here to know how easy it is to slip into a noon to 3 am routine (the infamous “MIT cycle.”) Here are some of the techniques I regularly use to remain within the confines of my fixed schedule:

Why This Works

You could fill any arbitrary number of hours with what feels to be productive work. Between e-mail, and “crucial” web surfing, and to-do lists that, in the age of David Allen, grow to lengths that rival the bible, there is always something you could be doing. At some point, however, you have to put a stake in the ground and say: I know I have a never-ending stream of work, but this is when I’m going to face it. If you don’t do this, you let the never-ending stream of work push you around like a bully. It will force you into tiring, inefficient schedules. And you’ll end up more stressed and no more accomplished.

Fix the schedule you want. Then make everything else fit around your needs. Be flexible. Be efficient. If you can’t make it fit: change your work. But in the end, don’t compromise. No one really cares about your schedule except for yourself. So make it right.

On the BBC News site, Bill Thompson takes the discussion in an interesting new direction:

The Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget described two processes that he believed lay behind the development of knowledge in children. The first is assimilation, where new knowledge fits into existing conceptual frameworks. More challenging is accommodation, where the framework itself is modified to include the new information.

The current generation of 'search engines' seem to encourage a model of exploration that is disposed towards assimilative learning, finding sources, references and documents which can be slotted into existing frameworks, rather than providing material for deeper contemplation of the sort that could provoke accommodation and the extension, revision or even abandonment of views, opinions or even whole belief systems.

Perhaps the real danger posed by screen-based technologies is not that they are rewiring our brains but that the collection of search engines, news feeds and social tools encourages us to link to, follow and read only that which we can easily assimilate.

Globe and Mail, columnist Margaret Wente becomes the latest writer to fess up to an evaporating ability to read long works of prose:

Google has done wondrous things for my stock of general knowledge. It also seems to have destroyed my attention span. Like a flea with ADD, I jump back and forth from the Drudge Report to gardening sites that list the growing time of Green Zebras …

Thanks to Google, we're all turning into mental fast-food junkies. Google has taught us to be skimmers, grabbing for news and insights on the fly. I skim books now too, even good ones. Once I think I've got the gist, I'll skip to the next chapter or the next book. Forget the background, the history, the logical progression of an argument. Just give me the takeaway.

[Jul 1, 2008] Rough Type Nicholas Carr's Blog

Make information free, and we'll become gluttons of information, as Rob Horning notes in an interesting post today:

As behavioral economists (most vociferously, Dan Ariely) have pointed out, we find the promise of free things hard to resist (even when a little thinking reveals that the free-ness is illusory). So when with very little effort we can accumulate massive amounts of “free” stuff from various places on the internet, we can easily end up with 46 days (and counting) worth of unplayed music on a hard drive. We end up with a permanent 1,000+ unread posts in our RSS reader, and a lingering, unshakable feeling that we’ll never catch up, never be truly informed, never feel comfortable with what we’ve managed to take in, which is always in the process of being undermined by the free information feeds we’ve set up for ourselves. We end up haunted by the potential of the free stuff we accumulate, and our enjoyment of any of it becomes severely impinged. The leisure and unparalleled bounty of a virtually unlimited access to culture ends up being an endless source of further stress, as we feel compelled to take it all in. Nothing sinks in as we try to rush through it all, and our rushing does nothing to keep us from falling further behind—often when I attempt to tackle the unread posts in my RSS reader, I end up finding new feeds to add, and so on, and I end up further behind than when I started.

Information may be free, but, as Horning explains, it exacts a price in the time required to collect, organize, and consume it. As we binge on the Net, the time available for other intellectual activities - like, say, thinking - shrinks. Eventually, we get bloated, mentally, and a kind of intellectual nausea sets in. But we can't stop because - hey - it's free.

[Jun 23, 2008] Multitasking Considered Detrimental

Posted by kdawson on Monday June 23, @02:20AM
from the but-we-knew-this dept. djvaselaar sends along an article from The New Atlantis that summarizes recent research indicating that multitasking may be detrimental to work and learning.. It begins, "In one of the many letters he wrote to his son in the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice: 'There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.' To Chesterfield, singular focus was not merely a practical way to structure one's time; it was a mark of intelligence... E-mails pouring in, cell phones ringing, televisions blaring, podcasts streaming--all this may become background noise, like the 'din of a foundry or factory' that [William] James observed workers could scarcely avoid at first, but which eventually became just another part of their daily routine. For the younger generation of multitaskers, the great electronic din is an expected part of everyday life. And given what neuroscience and anecdotal evidence have shown us, this state of constant intentional self-distraction could well be of profound detriment to individual and cultural well-being."

The New Atlantis » The Myth of Multitasking

In one of the many letters he wrote to his son in the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice: “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” To Chesterfield, singular focus was not merely a practical way to structure one’s time; it was a mark of intelligence. “This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.”

In modern times, hurry, bustle, and agitation have become a regular way of life for many people—so much so that we have embraced a word to describe our efforts to respond to the many pressing demands on our time: multitasking. Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, one sensed a kind of exuberance about the possibilities of multitasking. Advertisements for new electronic gadgets—particularly the first generation of handheld digital devices—celebrated the notion of using technology to accomplish several things at once. The word multitasking began appearing in the “skills” sections of résumés, as office workers restyled themselves as high-tech, high-performing team players. “We have always multitasked—inability to walk and chew gum is a time-honored cause for derision—but never so intensely or self-consciously as now,” James Gleick wrote in his 1999 book Faster. “We are multitasking connoisseurs—experts in crowding, pressing, packing, and overlapping distinct activities in our all-too-finite moments.” An article in the New York Times Magazine in 2001 asked, “Who can remember life before multitasking? These days we all do it.” The article offered advice on “How to Multitask” with suggestions about giving your brain’s “multitasking hot spot” an appropriate workout.

But more recently, challenges to the ethos of multitasking have begun to emerge. Numerous studies have shown the sometimes-fatal danger of using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving, for example, and several states have now made that particular form of multitasking illegal. In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise. In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” The psychologist who led the study called this new “infomania” a serious threat to workplace productivity. One of the Harvard Business Review’s “Breakthrough Ideas” for 2007 was Linda Stone’s notion of “continuous partial attention,” which might be understood as a subspecies of multitasking: using mobile computing power and the Internet, we are “constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities in an effort to miss nothing.”

Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and has written a book with the self-explanatory title CrazyBusy, has been offering therapies to combat extreme multitasking for years; in his book he calls multitasking a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” In a 2005 article, he described a new condition, “Attention Deficit Trait,” which he claims is rampant in the business world. ADT is “purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live,” writes Hallowell, and its hallmark symptoms mimic those of ADD. “Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points,” Hallowell argues, and this challenge “can be controlled only by creatively engineering one’s environment and one’s emotional and physical health.” Limiting multitasking is essential. Best-selling business advice author Timothy Ferriss also extols the virtues of “single-tasking” in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek.

Multitasking might also be taking a toll on the economy. One study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers; they found that workers took an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task. Discussing multitasking with the New York Times in 2007, Jonathan B. Spira, an analyst at the business research firm Basex, estimated that extreme multitasking—information overload—costs the U.S. economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.

Changing Our Brains

To better understand the multitasking phenomenon, neurologists and psychologists have studied the workings of the brain. In 1999, Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (part of the National Institutes of Health), used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to determine that when people engage in “task-switching”—that is, multitasking behavior—the flow of blood increases to a region of the frontal cortex called Brodmann area 10. (The flow of blood to particular regions of the brain is taken as a proxy indication of activity in those regions.) “This is presumably the last part of the brain to evolve, the most mysterious and exciting part,” Grafman told the New York Times in 2001—adding, with a touch of hyperbole, “It’s what makes us most human.”

It is also what makes multitasking a poor long-term strategy for learning. Other studies, such as those performed by psychologist René Marois of Vanderbilt University, have used fMRI to demonstrate the brain’s response to handling multiple tasks. Marois found evidence of a “response selection bottleneck” that occurs when the brain is forced to respond to several stimuli at once. As a result, task-switching leads to time lost as the brain determines which task to perform. Psychologist David Meyer at the University of Michigan believes that rather than a bottleneck in the brain, a process of “adaptive executive control” takes place, which “schedules task processes appropriately to obey instructions about their relative priorities and serial order,” as he described to the New Scientist. Unlike many other researchers who study multitasking, Meyer is optimistic that, with training, the brain can learn to task-switch more effectively, and there is some evidence that certain simple tasks are amenable to such practice. But his research has also found that multitasking contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, which can cause long-term health problems if not controlled, and contributes to the loss of short-term memory.

In one recent study, Russell Poldrack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that “multitasking adversely affects how you learn. Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.” His research demonstrates that people use different areas of the brain for learning and storing new information when they are distracted: brain scans of people who are distracted or multitasking show activity in the striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning new skills; brain scans of people who are not distracted show activity in the hippocampus, a region involved in storing and recalling information. Discussing his research on National Public Radio recently, Poldrack warned, “We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We’re really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we’re driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient.”

If, as Poldrack concluded, “multitasking changes the way people learn,” what might this mean for today’s children and teens, raised with an excess of new entertainment and educational technology, and avidly multitasking at a young age? Poldrack calls this the “million-dollar question.” Media multitasking—that is, the simultaneous use of several different media, such as television, the Internet, video games, text messages, telephones, and e-mail—is clearly on the rise, as a 2006 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed: in 1999, only 16 percent of the time people spent using any of those media was spent on multiple media at once; by 2005, 26 percent of media time was spent multitasking. “I multitask every single second I am online,” confessed one study participant. “At this very moment I am watching TV, checking my e-mail every two minutes, reading a newsgroup about who shot JFK, burning some music to a CD, and writing this message.”

The Kaiser report noted several factors that increase the likelihood of media multitasking, including “having a computer and being able to see a television from it.” Also, “sensation-seeking” personality types are more likely to multitask, as are those living in “a highly TV-oriented household.” The picture that emerges of these pubescent multitasking mavens is of a generation of great technical facility and intelligence but of extreme impatience, unsatisfied with slowness and uncomfortable with silence: “I get bored if it’s not all going at once, because everything has gaps—waiting for a website to come up, commercials on TV, etc.” one participant said. The report concludes on a very peculiar note, perhaps intended to be optimistic: “In this media-heavy world, it is likely that brains that are more adept at media multitasking will be passed along and these changes will be naturally selected,” the report states. “After all, information is power, and if one can process more information all at once, perhaps one can be more powerful.” This is techno-social Darwinism, nature red in pixel and claw.

Other experts aren’t so sure. As neurologist Jordan Grafman told Time magazine: “Kids that are instant messaging while doing homework, playing games online and watching TV, I predict, aren’t going to do well in the long run.” “I think this generation of kids is guinea pigs,” educational psychologist Jane Healy told the San Francisco Chronicle; she worries that they might become adults who engage in “very quick but very shallow thinking.” Or, as the novelist Walter Kirn suggests in a deft essay in The Atlantic, we might be headed for an “Attention-Deficit Recession.”

Paying Attention

When we talk about multitasking, we are really talking about attention: the art of paying attention, the ability to shift our attention, and, more broadly, to exercise judgment about what objects are worthy of our attention. People who have achieved great things often credit for their success a finely honed skill for paying attention. When asked about his particular genius, Isaac Newton responded that if he had made any discoveries, it was “owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.”

William James, the great psychologist, wrote at length about the varieties of human attention. In The Principles of Psychology (1890), he outlined the differences among “sensorial attention,” “intellectual attention,” “passive attention,” and the like, and noted the “gray chaotic indiscriminateness” of the minds of people who were incapable of paying attention. James compared our stream of thought to a river, and his observations presaged the cognitive “bottlenecks” described later by neurologists: “On the whole easy simple flowing predominates in it, the drift of things is with the pull of gravity, and effortless attention is the rule,” he wrote. “But at intervals an obstruction, a set-back, a log-jam occurs, stops the current, creates an eddy, and makes things temporarily move the other way.”

To James, steady attention was thus the default condition of a mature mind, an ordinary state undone only by perturbation. To readers a century later, that placid portrayal may seem alien—as though depicting a bygone world. Instead, today’s multitasking adult may find something more familiar in James’s description of the youthful mind: an “extreme mobility of the attention” that “makes the child seem to belong less to himself than to every object which happens to catch his notice.” For some people, James noted, this challenge is never overcome; such people only get their work done “in the interstices of their mind-wandering.” Like Chesterfield, James believed that the transition from youthful distraction to mature attention was in large part the result of personal mastery and discipline—and so was illustrative of character. “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again,” he wrote, “is the very root of judgment, character, and will.”

Today, our collective will to pay attention seems fairly weak. We require advice books to teach us how to avoid distraction. In the not-too-distant future we may even employ new devices to help us overcome the unintended attention deficits created by today’s gadgets. As one New York Times article recently suggested, “Further research could help create clever technology, like sensors or smart software that workers could instruct with their preferences and priorities to serve as a high tech ‘time nanny’ to ease the modern multitasker’s plight.” Perhaps we will all accept as a matter of course a computer governor—like the devices placed on engines so that people can’t drive cars beyond a certain speed. Our technological governors might prompt us with reminders to set mental limits when we try to do too much, too quickly, all at once.

Then again, perhaps we will simply adjust and come to accept what James called “acquired inattention.” E-mails pouring in, cell phones ringing, televisions blaring, podcasts streaming—all this may become background noise, like the “din of a foundry or factory” that James observed workers could scarcely avoid at first, but which eventually became just another part of their daily routine. For the younger generation of multitaskers, the great electronic din is an expected part of everyday life. And given what neuroscience and anecdotal evidence have shown us, this state of constant intentional self-distraction could well be of profound detriment to individual and cultural well-being. When people do their work only in the “interstices of their mind-wandering,” with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.

[Feb 24, 2008] The Mythology of Information Overload by Tonyia J. Tidline

1/1/99 | Library Trends,

This project combines ideas from mythology, folklore, and library and information science in an effort to make sense of an aspect of modern culture that is frequently perceived as troublesome. Discussions of information overload, "data glut," or "information anxiety" are abundant in popular culture but do little to shed light on the origin of this problem. Library and information science work sidesteps the need to verify the existence of information overload, seeking instead to mitigate its effects. The discipline has produced a vast literature that addresses user perceptions, information needs, and information-seeking behavior. Information management, information retrieval, and attendant notions such as relevance have also received much attention. Within both popular culture and library and information science research, information overload is usually described or defined by means of anecdote or by associated symptoms.

However constituted, popular and scholarly attention confirms information overload as a recognized and resonant cultural concept that persists even without solid corroboration. Mythology and folkloristics are used here as analytic tools to suggest that information overload can be viewed as a myth of modern culture. Here myth does not mean something that is not true but an overarching prescriptive belief.

[ Mar 09, 2007] A very good memo on mental overload from Washington College

Trying to sip information from the fire hose is a difficult and challenging task :-). This memo might help.

In today’s world, mental overload is a fact of life. Fortunately, by applying some simple techniques from the computer world, you can avoid some of the costly consequences of a too full brain!


A too-full computer can:
· give you error messages
· run slower
· take longer to process information
· crash

A too-full brain can cause you to:
· make mistakes
· forget to do something
· let things slip through the cracks
· become sluggish
· loose creativity
· become unproductive
· procrastinate
· become indecisive
· get stressed out
· experience a total mental break down

[ Mar 09, 2007] Mental overload by Katherine Lewis

Does excessive multi-tasking like happens to college students make us stupid? The answer is tentative yes:
Multi-tasking may be too much for the brain to handle Friday, March 09, 2007



We feel so efficient, listening to a teleconference while sorting e-mail and eating lunch at the same time. But experts warn that instead of completing three tasks in the space of one, we're really spending more time to achieve mediocre results.

"Research that's looked at multi-tasking shows that you can't do it well -- no one can," said Kristin Byron, assistant professor of management at Syracuse University. "You're fighting the way your brain works."

The brain acts on just one task at a time. What we perceive as simultaneous multi-tasking is really rapid switching back and forth to keep different tasks going -- even if one is as simple as deciding to lift the sandwich for another bite.

It's like the classic vaudeville act of spinning plates. Your brain can set a task in motion, then another, and then another, before returning to pick up the first task, explained David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

"If the demands of any given task aren't too taxing, you can get two, three, four plates going up, but at some point you're going to reach a threshold when they're going to crash."

You may avoid driving while talking on a cell phone because of the physical challenge of holding both phone and steering wheel. But Strayer's research shows hands-free cell phone use is just as dangerous while driving. The risk comes in toggling between the two mental demands.

Moreover, subjects in a recent study scored significantly lower on IQ tests they took while driving. "When your attention is taken away from a task, you are not going to perform it as smartly," Strayer said.

So does multi-tasking make us stupid?

It's not an outlandish conclusion. A 2005 study sponsored by Hewlett-Packard found the average worker lost 10 IQ points when interrupted by ringing telephones and incoming e-mails -- about equal to the cost of missing an entire night of sleep.

"Interruptions are time-consuming, and they are dangerous in the sense that they can lead to errors," said David E. Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "You are trying to feed information through various kinds of processing channels in the brain which have limited capacity and are really only available for one thing at a time."

Whenever we drop one task to perform another, we face "resumption costs" -- the time and energy it takes to orient ourselves when we return to the original task. It's true that interweaving two lengthy tasks can take less total time than performing the tasks separately. But there's a price.

"A lot of tasks we have to do, there are little moments of gaps which you can steal for another task," said Hal Pashler, psychology professor at the University of California in San Diego. "The interesting hidden cost ... is that (we) may be strikingly unable to recollect what happened."

That's because the free moments in each task -- such as waiting for a partner to respond in a conversation -- appear to be used to store or consolidate memories. If we talk on the phone while checking e-mail, it's at the expense of downtime our brains need.

"The conversation plus the e-mail may take less of your life, but the cost is that tomorrow you may not know exactly what you said," Pashler said.

Thus, if you try to take in new material or facts while multi-tasking, you'll have a tougher time learning, said Russell A. Poldrack, psychology professor at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Does all this mean we should never check our Blackberries while waiting in line at the grocery store? Or even sip a cup of coffee while listening to a conference speaker? After all, multi-tasking is woven into the fabric of modern life. More than 85 percent of people multi-task, and 67 percent believe they do it well, according to a survey by Apex Performance, a Charlotte, N.C., training firm.

Fortunately, the experts give us some slack. "You can't say in every situation it would be better to always focus on one task," Poldrack said.

If you're a stock trader who has to respond quickly to a lot of information, it makes sense to monitor multiple televisions and computer screens at once, he said. It may not matter that the next day you're hazy about which news anchor said what.

Certain physical actions, like walking or eating, are so hard-wired that they don't tax our brains much. There's certainly no harm in combining simple, low-stakes tasks, like folding laundry and watching television. And if background music energizes you to finish your work, that may outweigh the cost of your mind shifting between listening and crafting a report, Poldrack said.

Similarly, talking to an adult passenger doesn't hurt your driving the way talking on a cell phone does, Strayer has found. That's because the person in your car is attuned to the driving environment, and will pause the conversation when a tricky maneuver approaches.

To the degree that tasks rely on similar processes, they are more likely to interfere with each other. For instance, talking on the phone and writing an e-mail is hard, because both involve language, Poldrack said.

The answer is to choose carefully when you take on more than one job at once. For high-priority or complex tasks, you might want to shut down your e-mail, turn off the phone and close your office door. Apex Performance founder Louis Czoka even recommends that clients shut their eyes to focus on a teleconference.

[Feb 18, 2007] Crazy hours becoming the new standard -

Just how bad have things gotten? That's the subject of Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek, a recent study from the Center for Work-Life Policy. The study found that 1.7 million people consider their jobs and their work hours extreme, thanks to globalization, BlackBerries, corporate expectations and their own Type A personalities.

... .... ....

What Hewlett and Buck Luce found in their survey was that workers were themselves to blame. Many of the people interviewed for the study say they love their jobs and are reluctant to lessen their work load. In Agoglia's case, working for the small business consulting group was exactly what she wished for. Now she only comes into the office on a need basis. "It offers an opportunity for someone like me who needs more breathing room," she says, "but it also fulfills my desire to be challenged in my job."

That kind of fulfillment has its hazards. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed said their work pressures are self-inflicted but say it is taking a real toll on them individually. Nationally, 70 percent, and globally, 81 percent, say their jobs undermine their health in terms of exercise, diet and the impact of stress. Nationally, 46 percent, and globally, 59 percent, say it gets in the way of their relationships and nationally, 50 percent, say it affects their sex life.

Not surprisingly, men and women have a different take on the extreme nature of their jobs. In the global survey, 58 percent of men and 80 percent of women say they didn't want to work these hours for more than one more year. Says Buck Luce: "For women there's a flight risk. But men get burned out and are able to stick with it. There's a tremendous stigma for men who say, 'I can't do this.' That means there aren't going to be women at the top ranks of companies."

[Jan 18, 2007] Kelly Forrister Is there such a thing as obsessive-compulsive productivity

I wasn't surprised to read that 40% of Americans work 50 hours or more per week and rarely disconnect from their work, even on vacation. I hear about it all the time in my seminars where people feel like an 8 hour day is slacking off and working at night after the kids go to bed and in the morning before the office really opens is the only way they can stay on top of things.

Is it that people have too much to do or is it that they just don't have trusted systems (ala GTD) to feel like they can disconnect?

I've heard David Allen mention that we've always had too much to do. I don't think BlackBerry's necessarily create more work, it's just now people have higher expectations about how fast the work needs to get done.

Someone in one of my seminars recently told me she takes her laptop on vacation just to stay on top of her email (people actually hissed when she said this, perhaps from the fear that this will become expected.) The "vacation tax" of coming back to hundreds, if not thousands, of emails is just not worth it to her.

[Jan 17, 2007] BlackBerrys Don't Fit in Bikinis or obsessive-compulsive productivity by Joe Robinson

August 13, 2006 | Los Angeles Times

It's vacation prime time. Millions of wage-earners are on the road, in the air or on the water in search of overdue recreation, relaxation and adventure. But for too many, it will be a futile quest, thanks to a big, fat killjoy stowed away on the trip: OCP, or obsessive-compulsive productivity, a frantic fixation to wring results from every minute of the day, even our play.

Americans have always had an insistent work ethic. But thanks to technology that allows us to get things done 24/7, growing job demands and the elevation of efficiency to an unofficial national religion, many vacationers simply can't turn off their productive machinery. Every minute of the day, even of play, must be productive.

It's a habit that's increasingly counterproductive, evident in soaring job-stress bills (a $300-billion-a-year tab for U.S. business, according to the American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit organization) and longer workweeks. Nearly 40% of Americans work more than 50 hours a week. The all-output, all-the-time mandate of OCP wires us to do holidays like jobs. We cram downtime with to-do lists and a performance-review mentality that dooms trips to disappointment because we couldn't see or do everything we wanted. The trip's experience is an afterthought in a crazed race to polish off sights to the finish line of the holiday.

But trying to make a vacation productive is like trying to get a cat to bark. It's the wrong animal for the outcome, because vacations aren't about output. Instead, they're about the realm of an increasingly rare species — input — that can't be measured by a performance yardstick. The most packed itinerary can't quantify play, fun, wonder, discovery, adventure. How do you tally the spray of an exploding waterfall? The pattern of ripples on a sand dune? How do you produce quiet?

The productivity of U.S. workers has doubled since 1969, according to Boston College economist Juliet Schor. But none of the dividends have come back in additional free time. The added time that greater productivity creates is simply fodder for more productivity increases — and OCP jitters that we must get more done. How much production is enough?

Even on the job, too much time on task can lead to burnout, heart disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, mistakes, costly do-overs and rote performance. A study last year by the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that chronic 12-hour workdays increase your risk of illness or injury by 37%.

Work without time to think, analyze or recharge feeds knee-jerk performance and the hurry-worry of stress. Everything appears urgent when there isn't time to judge what is truly urgent and what isn't.

More than anybody else's, Americans' identity comes through labor. But the reflex to define self-worth by what we get done makes it hard to relax without a heap of guilt because there's always something next on the horizon to handle. Our focus on future results shrinks our experience of living and, ironically, the very thing we need for optimum performance — input.

The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. asked managers where they got their best ideas. It wasn't at the office. Rather, inspiration came when people were at play — on the golf course, running. Research on fatigue in the workplace since the 1920s shows that performance rises after a break in the action, whether a break of a few seconds or 15 minutes.

Studies have also found that job performance improves after a vacation. Income doubled at the H Group, an investment services company in Salem, Ore., after owner Ron Kelemen increased employee time off to 3 1/2 weeks. When Jancoa, a Cincinnati cleaning company, switched to a three-week vacation policy, worker productivity soared enough to cut overtime. Profits jumped 15%.

The true source of productivity isn't nonstop output. It's a refreshed and energized mind, something vacations specialize in.

But for that to happen, we must leave the OCP drill sergeant at home. Vacations require a different skill set — leisure skills. Without them, we lapse into default mode — produce, produce, produce. My retired father was stunned when he visited his former company and found a couple of his fellow retirees back at their desks. They didn't know what else to do.

As kids, we knew how to entertain ourselves. But many of us lost the knack when we learned that play for its own sake didn't produce rewards — status, pats on the back, money, goodies. Once we're in OCP territory, we've forgotten how to do things simply because we enjoy doing them.

Researchers say we had it right as kids. "Quality of life does not depend on what others think of us or what we own," contends psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience." "The bottom line is, rather, how we feel about ourselves, and about what happens to us. To improve life one must improve the quality of experience."

Famed for his studies on when people are at their happiest, Csikszentmihalyi adds that "when experience is intrinsically rewarding, life is justified in the present."

Things we do for our amusement are particularly good at improving that experience, delivering what's supposed to come out of all that production — self-worth, a sense of competence and, best of all, life satisfaction. Upping levels of performance can't generate happiness, psychologists contend, because production is tied to external approval, which is gone by the next morning's to-do list. But research shows that the more active your leisure lifestyle is, the higher your life satisfaction. Leisure also increases initiative, confidence and a positive mood.

So, if you haven't taken your vacation yet, maybe it's time to dust off the leisure portfolio and resuscitate the childhood practice of play. The packing list should include participation, engagement, spontaneity, a nonjudgmental attitude, the ability to ferret out amusements, take detours, wander without aim, plunge into things you haven't done before, and get out of your head and into direct experience. Along the way you may discover something long forgotten. Recess rules.


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Anxiety and Obsession with Work

What Constitutes an Addiction

Computer addicts tend to lose all sense of time when they are on-line. They are drawn so deeply into the world of bytes and bits that they do not notice entire days passing by.

They forget to eat, sleep, go to school, and even care for their children. They shirk responsibilities, slack off at work, and miss appointments because they are unable to pull themselves away.

The virtual world and the real world are competing for their attention, and the virtual world often wins.

Anxiety Disorders Education Program

The Anxiety Disorders Education Program is a national education campaign developed by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to increase awareness among the public and health care professionals that anxiety disorders are real medical illnesses that can be effectively diagnosed and treated. More than 19 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, which include panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias and generalized anxiety disorder. They suffer from symptoms that are chronic, unremitting and usually grow progressively worse if left untreated. Tormented by panic attacks, irrational thoughts and fears, compulsive behaviors or rituals, flashbacks, nightmares, or countless frightening physical symptoms, people with anxiety disorders are heavy utilizers of emergency rooms and other medical services. Their work, family and social lives are disrupted, and some even become housebound. Many of them have co-occuring disorders such as depression, alcohol or drug abuse, or other mental disorders. Because of widespread lack of understanding and the stigma associated with these disorders, many people with anxiety disorders are not diagnosed and are not receiving treatments that have been proven effective through research.

DG DISPATCH - ECNP Generalized Anxiety Disorder Has Worst Impact On Quality Of Life

Brain Lock Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior A Four-Step Self-Treatment Method to Change Your Brain Chemistry

A reader from America , July 2, 1999 5 out of 5 stars Excellent! A DYI approach to OCD and related disorders. A friend gave me this book and it is excellent. If you have OCD or even a related disorder it gives you a practical approach to learning to deal with and outsmart your disorder.

Take me, frinstance, while I do not have any checking compulsions, I have suffered from anxiety disorder and occasionally intrusive, disturbing thoughts for a number of years. (Other than that I am your regular guy, you wouldn't know I had a disorder if you saw me). This book gives you a 4-step method of "reframing" OCD in a way that makes it manageable. Ultimately, the authors say, by using their method you can "retrain your brain" and actually alter your brain chemistry in a positive direction and thus reduce the original symptoms to something liveable.

Buy it (or have a friend give it to you...) :-)

Stop Obsessing! How to Overcome Your Obsessions and Compulsions

The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing The Experience and Treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

A reader from Santa Fe, NM , July 16, 1998 5 out of 5 stars A good description of the problem and some solutions This book contains well-written descriptions of obsessive-compulsive disorder -- it's informative, clear, and a pleasure to read. And for those of us who either suffer from these disorders or are close to someone who does, it's an eye-opener: you are NOT the only person who's ever had to deal with this problem, and there IS hope for curing it! For all these reasons, I highly recommend the book. Two cautions, however: (1) The book gave a good description of the ways of treating OCD as of the date it was written. Since then, however, there have been many new developments, so, if you're specifically interested in treatments, you'll need to look up some more recent books and articles. (2) "Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder" (OCPD) is a related but different condition, and it's possible that someone who exhibits similar symptoms but doesn't have full-blown OCD suffers from this instead. (My mother has never gone in for compulsive hand-washing, but she's rigid, intolerant, controlling, and a pack rat on a truly monumental scale. That's OCPD.) The treatments for the two conditions differ -- drugs are more helpful for OCD than OCPD, for example. As with any mental condition, it's absolutely necessary to have a thorough professional diagnosis; don't just march into your doctor's office demanding Prozac, or stock up on St. John's Wort at your local herbalist's.

Social Anxiety Disorder


[Jan 15, 1999 ] Man Crashes Car As 50 Pagers Ring At Once -- pretty funny

KIEV (Reuters) - A Ukraine businessman who bought a pager for each member of his staff as a New Year gift was so alarmed when all 50 of them went off at the same time that he drove his car into a lamp post, a newspaper said Thursday.

The unnamed businessman was returning from the pager shop when the accident happened, the Fakty daily reported. ''With no more than 100 meters to go to the office, the 50 pagers on the back seat suddenly burst out screeching. The businessman's fright was such that he simply let go of the steering wheel and the car ploughed into a lamp post.''

After he had assessed the damage to the car, the businessman turned his attention to the message on the 50 pagers. It read: ''Congratulations on a successful purchase!''

Random Findings

Reducing information overload A comparative study of hypertext systems

How to deal with Information Overload on the Internet The intelligent agent concept

The Clever Project -- IBM project

The tremendous growth in the price-performance of networking and storage has fueled the explosive growth of the web. The amount of information easily accessible from the desktop has dramatically increased by several orders of magnitude in the last few years, and shows no signs of abating. Users of the web are being confronted with the consequent information overload problem. It can be exceedingly difficult to locate resources that are both high-quality and relevant to their information needs. Traditional automated methods for locating information are easily overwhelmed by low-quality and unrelated content. Thus, the second generation of search engines will have to have effective methods for focusing on the most authoritative among these documents. The rich structure implicit in the hyperlinks among Web documents offers a simple, and effective, means to deal with many of these problems. The CLEVER search engine incorporates several algorithms that make use of hyperlink structure for discovering high-quality information on the Web.


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The Last but not Least

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