Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Thinking DIfferently

If you have screamed, “why are these things eating my life” when a cell phone rings; or if the interruptions from electronic messages are keeping you from completing your assignments and enjoying life, it is time to add some mindware to your use of online communications.

Studies are indicating the new on onslaught of rapid-fire “all ways” on access is changing our brains. There are improvements in reaction time, peripheral vision, and neural agility. The counter side to this access is that many users are being overwhelmed by lack of time to ponder and being a powerless victim of a barrage of incoming pings. This presentation guides technology power users through a strategy for establishing a set of rules and procedures for reducing the stress associated with keeping total access.

Thoughts Become Words, Become Deeds, Become Behavior Until the Bell Rings

Our human brains were designed to handle communications is specific ways. Our prefrontal cortex is designed to process stimulations and integrate sensations and thoughts, as well as process working memory. The new onslaught of communication forms, rapid-fire communications, “all ways” on access is having an effect on our brains.

Being constantly “connected” may be the modus operandi for modern life. There are demonstrable improvements and changes that online communications has made to our workplace, home, and schools. Which causes the question to be asked, what are the changes that constant communications is having on the individual? By being aware of these changes, we’ll be able to design a strategy for our communications to improve the quality of our lives and stop eating our lives.

We’re ON! and other Prepositions

When the ramps to the internet were being developed, business forecasts focused on high-tech consumerism, but it’s proven not to be the main thing that the public wants to do online. How the internet is used the most and is making the most dramatic change in society is that it connects people with each other; one-to-one and one-to-many, synchronously, asynchronously and allows them to communicate in new ways.

Take a personal inventory of the types of hardware devices you use to communicate with others. Add the number of accounts you have to manage and the applications you need to use and chances are you’ll have significant resources consumed by online access points. Your current standard operating procedure may be that you are logged in – logged on – dialed in – on net – forwarded to - connected to multiple devices and applications at any time on any day. You are ON.

Chicken AND Egg

Is it because of the new devices and applications that are being introduced into our personal communications that work is changing, or is it because work is changing that new devices and applications are being developed?

Whether it is the business office migrating to the home office or workplaces breaking down functional silos as team environments become the mainstay for organizational structure; communication technologies enable teamwork with audio, video, graphical and text-based tools.

Not only is the workplace changing, but the very nature of the work in both is changing. The modern workplace demands workers be fluent in multiple aspects across the business, such as product management and system development. Access to resources using communication devices are necessary for the knowledge-intensive work that is being done.

The hefty impact of communications is most felt by the way it breaks down borders. Borders may be hierarchical, geographical, time, worksite-vs-home and private-vs-public. Communications means access to people that can provide information. Borders that interfere with attaining information when it is needed –or wanted- are quickly being crossed. A social stigma of being out-of-touch taints those who resist the lure of the total access siren.

The Brain Change

The brain’s neural circuitry responds every moment and whatever sensory input it gets. Every ringtone, email alert, text message buzz, indicator light exposes our brains to digital stimulation and interrupts our current thought process. Not just our prefrontal cortex is being strained by a constant bombardment of chatter and tracking everything everywhere, but our hippocampus and other regions of our brains’ are being taxed altering the neural circuitry.

Neuroscientist Professor Gary Small has found through brain studies that online tasks such as text messaging has made brains more adept at filtering information and making snap decisions. These studies at UCLA have also shown a rise in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). By creating new neural pathways – and even what is posed as attention deficit -our brains are compensating to cope with this new super-speed operating environment. It opens a realm process engineering and organizational development to take advantage of the new capabilities and behaviors that are being learned.

A fallacy users accept when they outfit themselves with communications technologies is that they will be more productive because they can multi-task. We don’t multi-task: we have continuous partial attention (CPA) as termed coined by Linda Stone. All ways on communications is creating a situation for the users where they are continually staying busy keeping tabs on everything while never truly focusing on anything. While on alert for a new contact or bit of exciting news or information at any moment, the brain is stimulating the adrenal gland to secrete cortisol and adrenaline which cascades the stress to our bodies.

The term ‘locus of control’ refers to whether you feel your life is controlled by you or by forces outside yourself. When a person feels like they have little choice in how many times, ways, and when they receive or have to respond to messages their stress levels are higher and they are more susceptible to mental stress depletions. The challenge with being connected to meet the requirements of modern interaction is to create an internal feeling of the locus of control. By understanding the brain and behavioral changes that are induced by being constantly connected gives a framework to building a personal communications strategy.

Scrambled Eggs

Network communication is a part of the fabric of our current workplace. So how are we, the individual human –whether digital native or digital immigrant- dealing with always all ways on communications?

Ideally, we’re more informed, more aware, more involved, and more social. Certainly, the means of communications has provided many opportunities to expand our worlds. The counter side to engrossment is that many users are being overwhelmed by lack of time to ponder and being a powerless victim of a barrage of incoming messages. The effects of this “brain strain” are having some destructive manifestations, such as:

• Reacting not thinking
No longer taking time to reflect, contemplate or make thoughtful decisions, but simply reacting as if in crisis mode.

• Not concentrating
Being bombastically interrupted by rings, lights, and buzzes where each disrupts concentration on complex tasks up to 15 minutes.

• Making mistakes
Substituting accuracy for expediency (example texting)

• Increasing task time
Time to complete tasks is lengthened because interruptions result in fragmented working time.

• Increasing the workload
Unconsciously and unintentionally increasing the workload because we’ve added multiple communications updates to the job. Or we’ve added a new interface or application to the job.

• Losing interpersonal skills
Loss of face-to-face human interactions skills, such as eye contact, appropriate gestures, and forming complete sentences

• Alert Addiction
Thriving on the perpetual connectivity – every alert or message stimulates a jolt of adrenaline, feeds the ego, and it becomes irresistible.

Add Mindware to the Mix

Under duress of over active communications, users may suffer from dyslexic rationale, and think the only way to reduce the barrage is to “unplug from the grid” – not answer the phone – cancel our accounts and throw away their PDAs. While this may be a means to let off some steam, chances are the user would soon encounter other stressful situations, such as loss of job, disenfranchisement from friends and other social impacts. Let’s face it, to be relevant means to be connected.

When you had one device (home telephone) and one application (synchronous voice calls), you had a simple communications strategy (talking with people you knew). As you added components, you have adjusted your rationale. If you’re not getting the benefits and relief you need from your inbound and outbound communications, it’s time to take a look at how to improve your strategy by adding mindware to the mix.

What is mindware? The term was coined by MIT professor David Perkins to refer to the rules, data, procedures, strategies and other cognitive tools (knowledge of probability, logic and scientific inference) that must be retrieved from memory to think rationally.

By applying mindware to your use of hardware and software, you will establish a set of accessibility parameters that enable an internal locus of control, create spaces for quiet thought, and uninterrupted personal interaction. There are two key mindware requirements for your communications strategy to be sustainable:

1. It supports interruptions

2. It is actionable

Making the Connection

Publishing may or may not be so, but communication is bi-directional. And as in every relationship between two or more people, then are accommodations you’ll need to make.

1. Determine with whom you need and want to communicate. Find out their preferred methods of interaction.

As an example: My strategy started with my four children and parents: One child calls every day at various times during the day. One calls with Video Skype each Sunday. One is continually texting – if the average US teenager texts 2,272 times each month, he is well above average. One shows up on the door step at dinner time. The other consideration was my parents, who seem to have a telephone that does not need a keypad, since it only demonstrates inbound capability. To accommodate this motley crew, I need a mobile phone, a computer with video capabilities, a SMS package, and a full refrigerator.

2. Get the hardware you want to carry, have on your desk, and can afford that provides your connectivity to these people. Get the accounts and software you need.

Using my personal lifestyle, I had to have tools that would also accommodate my business and school requirements. I carry a smart phone, which gives me phone, web, email, SMS, mobile connectivity. I have a VoIP phone at home and office; and a multi-media laptop and a desktop with remote access software. I have email accounts, phone accounts, social media accounts, portal accounts, numbering in the dozens. I have implemented my strategy by programming the settings so the devices are forwarded, cascaded, or rolled-to specific access points that fit within my personal parameters.

3. Determine how and when you want to be accessible; these are your personal parameters for use. For example, you may want your mobile phone to roll over to voice mail after 10 pm. Other considerations to consider are the amount of time it takes to attend to each means, the privacy you require, and if it is a redundant effort.  Aggregate account logins when possible and within your strategy.

Read the User’s Guides and personalize your tools to provide you with practical solutions to your communications needs. (I will have absolute denial should anyone tell my husband that I made this recommendation.)

4. Create a Rules of Engagement Matrix, or like, to share with people you are connected with. People who call or message you will learn your habits. You’ll find that if you don’t answer the phone between certain hours, most routine callers will adjust their call times accordingly. It requires discipline on both sides of the communication. If you have an auto-response on your email that you will reply within 24 hours, make sure you keep your end of dialog.

To accompany your rules matrix, create some template emails and voice messages to send to your network. For instance, I have friend who does not listen to his voice mails. He looks at his call log and returns calls based on the caller ID. So on his voice greeting he lets callers know this and his callers have their expectations set for the return call.

Network communications yields us with great power to keep in touch with people with little regard to the boundaries of geography, location, and time. But as Spiderman was warned by his uncle – “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Our responsibility is to be connected and in control of communications to improve our productivity, relationships, and lives.


Small, Gary. Vorgan, Gigi. “Meet Your iBrain – How technologies that have become part of our daily lives are changing the way we think.” Scientific American Mind. (October 2008)

Perkins, D. N. PhD. “Mindware and the Metacurriculum.” Creating the Future.(1991) Available: http://www. newhorizons. org/future/Creating_the_Future/crfut_perkins. html

T├ętard, Franck. “Fragmentation of Working Time and Smarter IS-Solutions.” (2000) Available:

http://interruptions. net/literature/Tetard-HICSS00. pdf

Stone, Linda. “Thoughts on Continuous Partial Attention. ” (2009) http://www. neuegegenwart. de/ausgabe51/continuouspartialattention. htm

Stanovich, Keith E. “Rational and Irrational Thought: The Thinking That IQ Tests Miss.” Scientific American Mind. (September 2009)