Monday, October 13, 2014

The War on Distraction

Recently I read this article about how Clay Shirky, a professor of media studies at NYU, had banned the use of laptops, tablets and phones in his classroom. I particularly resonated with the following quotation:

"Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — its me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions."

I'm at the right age to have grown up mostly without the internet. Computers penetrated my life in the first six grades, and the internet came to my house about grade 9. Through university I saw the transition as society became more used to the internet, and the internet became more useful. By the end of my second degree laptop usage in class was pervasive. I've seen my own habits and even my own brain change as a result.

And I've come to the conclusion that we really are waging a war on distraction. Or rather, many of us are not waging this war and have lost it a long time ago. Computers, and particularly connected devices, are constantly calling for our attention. This works against embodiment, against presence, against deep focus.

On the other hand I am very pro-technology. It has enabled so much, and its very useful in the work I do. But I have become increasingly aware of its detrimental effects on myself, and in the classroom.

Actually, in Mongolia it has not been such a problem. At best I have one student in class with a laptop, taking notes, and I know they are not in fact on the internet. However, going forward, and especially back into a western context, I will be adapting a no-devices policy. Because this is not about teacher vs. students, but about teachers and students waging war on distractions. 

In my own technology usage I try hard to control distractions. At present I use two layers. Firstly, I use they StayFocusd plug-in to limit all the major sites that I frequently procrastinate on, to a maximum 25 minutes between 7am and 5pm. Secondly, when I am down for some serious work, I will go a step further and activate Anti-Social or Freedom, depending on whether I need some limited access or no access at all. If someone would give me an offline alternative to the Greek Word Study Tool at Perseus, I could pretty much shut off the internet for all major study/work. What I would really like is a very full-features way to individualise which web-sites are accessible and when. 

Remember, the rest of the world isn't interested in guarding your time, attention, or ability to do deep, focused work. It wants to grab that attention and divert it to its own ends. You must guard your time and attention. You must wage the war against distraction.

A few other miscellanious tips:

* Don't turn on any chat programs. Unless you intend to chat. Don't leave these things running in the background. They are just a signal to the rest of the world to interrupt you.

* Turn off all notifications on your phone. Go further, and cut off data usage. Then you will only be interfacing with the internet when you choose to turn wifi on.

* Try adopting a zero-inbox and zero-other-things policy (rss feeds, for instance). Deal with things immediately if possible, otherwise sort them and delegate them to another time. Don't react to email, train yourself to deal with it once a day.

* Tabs were a revolution in internet browsing, but they are probably killing you as well. Close inactive tabs. Learn the art of single-tasking.

* I am not an expert of all these tips. Some are things I know that I should do but don't. So don't give up, I am not dispensing the advice of a distraction-conqueror, but a lowly soldier still in this fight.


Stephen Hill said...

Have you seen Diogenes ( It's a downloadable interface for the Perseus parsing engine. It includes L&S and LSJ. It has problems every now and then, but on the whole I find it more convenient than the Perseus site.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Thanks Stephen, I will check out Diogenes. Very helpful.

Peter said...

Yes distraction can be a real temptation, however I would find a no-devices policy problematic, as I do almost 100% of my reading/studying on my iPad. It is of great benefit to have my "brain," as it were, with me at all times since it has a better memory than I do...

I wonder if a no-devices policy is in fact the best method to prevent distraction. Wouldn't teaching the disciple to ignore distraction be a better approach? Is it even possible to teach focus in today's culture? (Of course, it does require turning off notifications, etc.)

Regarding off-line Greek Word Study tools, I use "Ancient Greek" on my iPad which uses the LJS Lexicon. Also, LOGOS with the free SBLGNT and SBLGNT apparatus has some Greek Study tools (but I am not sure if it works completely off-line as I am almost always on-line).

Seumas Macdonald said...

> I wonder if a no-devices policy is in fact the best method to prevent distraction. Wouldn't teaching the disciple to ignore distraction be a better approach? Is it even possible to teach focus in today's culture? (Of course, it does require turning off notifications, etc.)

I know myself that the power of connectivity to distract is very strong. Apps/programs/notifications are all designed to draw our attention. I used to think it was just a matter of willpower and discipline, but I now think that the first step of willpower here is to switch off the connectivity.

I was also quite interested, in the article linked to, to read off how screens distract others. It is not just about the student, it is about the class as a whole. People are drawn to screens, to what's happening on them.

I use LSJ on Logos, but it has no parsing function. my main need is to parse forms found in patristic works, which have almost never been analysed and tagged for a database.