Dealing with My/Our Attention and Information Issues

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.

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  • The minutes tick by quickly before I have to go to work and you are a side dish with my breakfast and coffee this morning. Your picture is eye catching. It had been suggested to me that people treat personal finance like dipping a cup into a flowing stream; we never really know how much money we have at any given time any more. The open hydrant metaphor will stick with me now. I feel less pressure than you would feel to be the all-knowing consultant, but the circumstances of our professional lives are enough to school us into being hedgehogs.

    Teaching itself is a study in appropriate information technology. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wonder if I could have responded to you in 140 characters or less?
    .-= Alan Stange´s last blog ..Projectors =-.

  • Best blog post of the day my friend!

    So many great quotes that have me thinking about how students today see the web and why so many educators look at a web site and not know where to click, what to read, or where to go. Last week we spent 2 hours with teachers at our school just looking at how you read a web site. It’s different than a book, or Facebook. Reading for meaning on a web page full of links is different and taking time to teach that will help all of us.
    .-= Jeff Utecht´s last blog ..Socialize your Science Data =-.

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  • @Alan,
    140 characters limits us and we have to recognize it’s limitations as you are obviously inferring. People have to get comfortable with the systems, filters they’ve developed. There are many ways to do that and while I have mine, everyone has to develop their own.

    The challenge for me is helping people recognize what things are the same in terms of reading and extracting meaning and what things are different. I think too often, people focus on the differences and ignore the skills they bring to the table. I’d say begin by establishing the commonalities and then begin to branch out to see differences.

  • Dean,

    Great “not top 5” list here. All of the elements you mention that aid in your ability to make information behave for you are strategies that should be shared. Personally, I often feel the need to be “the guy” who shares the links, who has the answers, regardless of topic, and this gets in the way of productivity sometimes. The release of that need, you describe it via the Good to Great reference, is liberating, but like all roles we play in life, hard to relinquish.

    Thanks for putting this out there. It definitely has me thinking about how to fortify my filters.
    .-= Patrick´s last blog ..Worth Spreading Around =-.

  • Hi Dean,

    I think it’s a good idea here to delineate attending and attention. Notice the difference.

    I suspect that you’ve become good at limiting your attending. To use a Gladwellian term, I suspect you thin-slice much of what comes your way and selectively choose what to attend to.

    The notion of attending requires significantly more cognitive resources. Without being familiar with Shirky’s work, I might posit that another aspect to a filter failure is the need for some to learn to filter out what does not require attending. To put it another way, folks just entering need to learn to skim and not sweat digesting everything.

    Those of us with existing filters need to work on “fortifying” as Patrick put it.


  • Nic Finelli

    Thanks for taking the time to write today. This blog along with an interesting conversation on NPR’s On Point this morning about e-memory has me yearning to stop work and just have a long discussion with some people face to face about these topics.

  • AMRowley

    Thank you for the great post. Not often to I get to see myself in the mirror. I could really relate to the sections “snacking vs. eating” and filters. More time has to be spent teaching students (and reminding ourselves…) to slow down, read deeper, ask questions and find meaning in what we read.

  • Chris,

    Great point. I would be grateful if you took the time either here or on your own blog to flesh out the two more distinctly. Also do you think that both attending and attention are equally as challenging today or is attention a more longstanding issue? Love to hear your thoughts and thanks for chiming in. You indeed are one of my filters. 😉

  • Kerry Gallagher

    Thanks for posting this! I’m in a class with over 30 of my teacher colleagues from varying grade levels in Reading, Massachusetts. The class is called “Expanding the Boundaries of Teaching and Learning”. We are learning about incorporating Web 2.0 into our classrooms. Some of us are already pretty proficient and some are true beginners. No matter where we stand now, the class promises to give us PLENTY to consider.

    We all walked out of our class tonight feeling overwhelmed already, and it was only class #2! I shared your insights from this entry with my classmates. The hydrant picture provides a fantastic simile, too. Hopefully it will empower them the way it has empowered me. Filters are an important way to keep us sane (and to get what we need without getting so caught up that we forget to eat/go to bed/have face to face conversations)!


  • Kaiya West

    I realize the “Sometimes Good Enough… is Good Enough” was only a minor piece in your overall post, but I got more out of those few sentences than I did anything else.
    I am currently a college student, working on my undergrad degrees in secondary education. I have gone through my entire educational career pushing myself and striving for excellence (a perfect grade, the perfect source for a paper, or being a standout in the midst of an entire classroom.) As crazy as it sounds, this section of your post enlightened me, and now I see that striving for those high expectations are all good well and helped prepare me for my life right now, but I could have very easily been just as successful as successful without the high levels of self-inflicted stress.
    With that introspection out of the way, I tried to picture my future classroom. I’m sure without even thinking about it, I would carry those high expectations of doing your best all the time, striving for excellence, etc., onto my students. I will seriously think about your post on the days I am frustrated with my students only trying for good enough, because in all actuality, it may be the best I will get out of them.
    Thanks for the great post!
    Kaiya West, University of Nebraska-Kearney

  • Kaiya,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think the idea of “good enough” needs to be explored further. It’s often gets lumped in with prioritizing but it’s slightly different. Prioritizing is part of it but given the massive amounts of activity and information we deal with every day, it’s important that we determine the degree to which we seek excellence and perfection as well as being happy with less. It may not even make it less important. These skills and analysis is something new we need to teach.

  • Hey, thank you for this great post. There were several sentences that caught my attention. In fact, I feel … enlightened.

    It has been so long I didn’t take the time to find out sense in what my job is all about. Thought aiming at the best grades and filtering information is good, more time has to be spent teaching students how to read deeper, explore and ask questions.

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