September 14, 2009

Dealing with My/Our Attention and Information Issues

This post was last updated on July 29th, 2014 at 10:19 am

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Will Lion

As this article states, the problem of attention isn’t particularly new but it certainly is becoming more and more an issue. I remember teachers back in the 1980’s lamenting that they felt they were competing with the MTV generation. MTV seems pretty tame and managable compared to what we are dealing with today.

There aren’t too many days that go by that someone doesn’t ask me about “keeping up”. I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers.  Even highly connected and media savvy folks struggle. I struggle with it too, but I have developed a few beliefs, principles that have been helpful to me. I’ll avoid the “top 5” or “best ways to” kind of approach and simply share a few things I think can be helpful in a day of attention deficits.


As an avid reader of Clay Shirky, the most important lesson I’ve learned from him is about filter failure. As he so eloquently states, it’s not information overload it’s filter failure. We’ve always lived with an abundance of information. Our libraries were filled with books we never read, movies we never saw and conversations we never had. Today, it’s mostly access that makes us feel like it’s too much. In that past we just weren’t as bombarded with information. It took work to go to the library. We had to physically go to see people. Today we carry around our friends and the bulk of human knowledge in our pockets.

While search engines are getting better and better at filtering information, I prefer human powered search. Three places where that happens for me are:

  • Delicious I’ve got 29 people whose daily readings come directly to me. I could have 100 people, I could have 5. I can change these 29 people but the point is most of what they find is of interest to me. They are weeding out the junk to give me what they think is noteworthy.
  • Google Reader While I subscribe to over 300 sites but the shared portion of Google Reader is the one place I’ll check everyday. 55 people who share the best of what they find in their reading is pretty much all I need.
  • Twitter A bit more random but yet potentially very valuable, usually I find great stuff in the conversations. Great links usually get retweeted. If you just check RTs you won’t miss much

Simplify the Complex

Information and technology can seem very complex but in the end, it’s important to distill and synthesize. This is why the Common Craft videos are so popular. The LeFevers have taken the time to take some pretty complex technologies and make them simple. One of the ways I attempt to synthesize is to blog. Writing often helps me figure out what is really important. When educators reject using technology in the classroom it’s often because they think it’s too complicated. What they fail to do is determine for themselves what the key ideas are. Digital Storytelling is a great example. There are upteen dozen ways to tell stories but in the end, it’s always about good storytelling. We can spend lots of time examining the intricacies of using media but without a good story, it doesn’t matter. That’s not to say that simple means easy, it just means it doesn’t have to be that hard to understand. Once you have a clear understanding of a topic, you can more easily sift through irrelevant material and noise.

The Hedgehog Principle

Jim Collin’s book Good to Great talks about success among business who deploy the hedgehog principle. In a nutshell it’s the idea of finding your niche or what your focus is and sticking with it. Other companies, in his examples, often get distracted and sidetracked working on things that aren’t part of the core of the company. Instead, he says, find out what you’re good at and stick with it. Now you can argue this idea to some extent but in today’s world, we have to set limits on ourselves. So at some point you have to decide what where you want to develop your expertise and focus your attention. When the latest and greatest tool or resource comes your way, you need to be prepared to pass on it from time to time.  I tend to rely on others to become experts for me. Simply knowing that someone else can be a resource, relieves me from having to know all there is to know. I never would have anyways but limiting the discussions and ideas that I pursue is of great value.

Another resource that I think about a lot when it comes to dealing with choices and focusing on a few things is the great TED talk by Barry Schwartz called The Paradox of Choice. This video has been very important for me in understanding the greatest of our time as well as the challenges. If you haven’t seen it, watch it, or maybe even watch it again. After watching it again, I’m adding another principle that feeds off of this one.

Sometimes Good Enough, is Good Enough

Dave Weinberger talks a lot sometimes settling for “good enough’. That notion rubs many people the wrong way, in particular educators. Most teachers spend hours telling their students to always do their best and while this is certainly a valid trait we want to instill, at times, we have to settle for good enough. When it comes to information, this is very true. When you get 3 million search results, sometimes you settle. Wikipedia is often good enough. It’s not perfect but most of the work we do and understanding we are needing doesn’t have to be. Again, this isn’t always the case but learning how and when to accept good enough is a badly needed skill. I find this particularly true when I’m searching for an image on flickr. With over 3 billion photos finding an image that depicts an idea isn’t usually that hard, finding the perfect one is. Even the image I’m using on this post could be better, but it’s good enough.

Snacking versus Eating

For me, this is most challenging. I could spend a great deal of time snacking on twitter. While there are many quality ideas, resources and conversations shared, it’s still a snack. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of time and money but this quote from the Globe and Mail article explains it:

The cost of one’s time (approximated, for example, by the average wage) relative to the cost of data manipulation, transmission and storage has increased roughly 10-million-fold in just over two generations – a change in relative “prices” utterly without precedent. This, above all, is what is driving the evolution of online behaviour and culture, with profound implications for the production and consumption of knowledge. The primary consequence is the growing emphasis on speed at the expense of depth.

I like speed and like quick but I have to discipline myself to dig deep. I need to be able to move from a 140 character blurb, to a link-filled blog post, to an essay to a book. It’s not easy but like trying to eat well, I know what’s good for me.  I like a bag of chips as much as the next guy but as a steady diet, you need to peel the potatoes and cook them (even better if you can grow them yourself). Sure it takes more time but it’s way better for you in the long run.


No question that how we manage information and how we teach students to manage it will be a huge part of our lives. It is already. I refuse to engage in conversations about “the good old days” in which we usually look back and attribute fonder and more positive memories about the past that we grew up in. It doesn’t really matter anyway. It’s never going to be like that. If, however, you want to discuss timeless values and characteristics that may be forgotten at times, that’s worth my time. I hope these are some timeless principles that I can get better at implementing.