Tag: Winifred Gallagher

Focusing Illusions

focusing illusions

My favorite chapter in the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher is called ‘Decisions: Focusing Illusions.’ It’s a really great summary of how focusing on the wrong things affects the weights we use to make decisions. There is a lot of great content packed into this chapter but I’ll attempt to highlight a few points.

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Bounded Rationality

According to the principle of ‘bounded rationality,’ which (Daniel) Kahneman first applied to economic decisions and more recently to choices concerning quality of life, we are reasonable-enough beings but sometimes liable to focus on the wrong things. Our thinking gets befuddled not so much by our emotions as by our ‘cognitive illusions,’ or mistaken intuitions, and other flawed, fragmented mental constructs.

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Loss/Risk Aversion

If you’re pondering a choice that involves risk, you might focus too much on the threat of possible loss, thereby obscuring an even likelier potential benefit. Where this common scenario is concerned, research shows that we aren’t so much risk-averse as loss-averse, in that we’re generally much more sensitive to what we might have to give up than to what we might gain.

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The Focusing Illusion

The key to understanding why you pay more attention to your thoughts about living than to life itself is neatly summed up by what Kahneman proudly calls his ‘fortune cookie maxim’ (a.k.a the focusing illusion): ‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.’ Why? ‘Because you’re thinking about it!

In one much-cited illustration of the focusing illusion, Kahneman asked some people if they would be happier if they lived in California. Because the climate is often delightful there, most subjects thought so. For the same reason, even Californians assume they’re happier than people who live elsewhere. When Kahneman actually measured their well-being however, Michiganders and others are just as contented as Californians. The reason is that 99 percent of the stuff of life – relationships, work, home, recreation – is the same no matter where you are, and once you settle in a place, no matter how salubrious, you don’t think about it’s climate very much. If you’re prompted to evaluate it, however, the weather immediately looms large, simply because you’re paying attention to it. This illusion inclines you to accentuate the difference between Place A and Place B, making it seem to matter much more than it really does, which is marginal.

To test the fortune cookie rule, you have only to ask yourself how happy you are. The question automatically summons your remembering self, which will focus on any recent change in your life – marriage or divorce, new job or home. You’ll then think about this novel event, which in turn will increase its import and influence your answer. If you’re pleased that you’ve just left the suburbs for the city, say, you’ll decide that life is pretty good. If you regret the move, you’ll be dissatisfied in general. Fifteen years on, however, the change that looms so large now will pale next to a more recent event – a career change, perhaps or becoming a grandparent – which will draw your focus and, simply because you’re thinking about it, bias your evaluation of your general well-being.

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The Effects of Adaptation

Like focusing too much on the opinions of your remembering self, overlooking the effects of adaptation – the process of becoming used to a situation – can obstruct wise decisions about how to live. As Kahneman says, ‘when planning for the future, we don’t consider that we will stop paying attention to a thing.

The tendency to stop focusing on a particular event or experience over time, no matter how wonderful or awful, helps explain why the differences in well-being between groups of people in very different circumstances tend to be surprisingly small – sometimes astoundingly so. The classic examples are paraplegics and lottery winners, who respectively aren’t nearly as miserable or happy as you’d think. ‘That’s where attention comes in,’ says Kahneman. ‘People think that if they win the lottery, they’ll be happy forever. Of course, they will not. For a while, they are happy because of the novelty, and because they think about winning all the time. Then they adapt and stop paying attention to it.’ Similarly, he says, ‘Everyone is surprised by how happy paraplegics can be, but they are not paraplegic full-time. They do other things. They enjoy their meals, their friends, the newspaper. It has to do with the allocation of attention.’

Like couples who’ve just fallen in love, professionals starting a career, or children who go to camp for the first time, paraplegics and lottery winners initially pay a lot of attention to their new situation. Then, like everybody else, they get used to it and shift their focus to the next big thing. Their seemingly blase attitude surprises us, because when we imagine ourselves in their place, we focus on how we’d feel at the moment of becoming paralyzed or wildly rich, when such an event utterly monopolizes one’s focus. We forget that we, too, would get used to wealth, a wheelchair, and most other things under the sun, then turn our attention elsewhere.

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Good Enough

Finally, don’t worry if the choice you made wasn’t the absolute best, as long as it meets your needs. Offering the single most important lesson from his research, Schwartz says, ‘Good enough is almost always good enough. If you have that attitude, many problems about decisions and much paralysis melt away.’

Attentional Blink

Despite my experiments with meditation, I have difficulty focusing on my breath if I take a few days off meditating or yoga.

The world is distracting, there are texts coming in, fire trucks going by, an ache in my back, and an itch on my nose.

This, however, is the way we move forward. After a few days of regular meditation, I'm back. My ability to concentrate and focus becomes so much higher. I read with greater ease and retain more information.

This passage by Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, talking about attentional blink, is worth flagging.

… different types of attentional training affect the brain and behavior in different ways. Practices that feature neutral, single-pointed concentration, such as mindfulness meditation, particularly improve your ability to focus as you go about your daily life. ‘Attentional blink’ experiments suggest why. If you’re shown two letters flashed a half-second apart in a series of twenty numbers, for example, you’ll almost certainly see the first letter but miss the second one. The glitch is caused by ‘sticky’ attention, which keeps you glued to the first cue, preventing your from catching it the next time. After three months of breath-centered meditation, however, you’re able to ‘let go’ of the first letter quickly and be ready to focus on the second.

No mere psych-lab curiosity, the blink research, which offers yet more proof that the world you experience is much more subjective than you assume, has important real-life implications. Even when you think you’re focused on what’s going on, these data show, you miss things that occur in quick succession, including fleeting facial and vocal cues. … ‘Sensitive attention is a key substrate of successful social interactions, and the consequences of missing that kind of information can be quite significant.’ Indeed, research done by Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, shows that slight, rapid changes in a person’s expression are highly meaningful, if unspoken, indications of what’s really on his or her mind. Most people don’t read these cues well, he finds, but attentional training can greatly improve this interpretive ability.

Because the blink phenomenon has long been regarded as relatively fixed, the fact that it can be modified helps prove that attention is indeed a trainable skill.

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is filled with tips and strategies on how to improve your ability to concentrate and pay attention.

Winifred Gallagher On Living a Focused Life

focused life

“The American dream is no longer just to get rich quick, but also to enjoy doing it, the new captains of industry offer various best-selling decalogue for achieving this goal. Their tips range from philosophical (learn from your failures) to the practical (never handle the same piece of paper twice). There’s one insight into both productivity and satisfaction that they inevitably share, however: the importance of laser like attention to your goal, be it building a better mousetrap or raising cattle. Unless you can concentrate on what you want to do and suppress distractions, it’s hard to accomplish anything, period.” — Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

I’ve been exploring my ability to focus lately. It seems,  the more we practice and the more we try to become aware of when our focus slips away, the better and more productive we become. Being in this moment — not the past and not the future — is something I've learned through yoga and philosophy.

One thing that really helped was to identify and systematically remove distractions from my life. This made it easier to work on awareness, that is, staying in the moment, or as Gallagher, paraphrasing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, puts it:

Stay focused on the moment, (Csikszentmihalyi says), even when you’re engaged in routine tasks or social encounters. Practise directing and mastering your attention by any enjoyable means.

What does, ‘by any enjoyable means’ actually mean? The more I try to be aware of how my focus ebbs and flows, the more I realize it’s intrinsically tied into the activities I’m participating in.

According to the under-appreciated mid-twentieth-century psychologist Nicholas Hobbs, the way to ensure this calm but heightened attention to the matter at hand is to choose activities that push you so close to the edge of your competence that they demand your absolute focus. In a variation on James's recipe for interesting experience – the familiar leavened by the novel – Hobb’s ‘art of choosing difficulties’ requires selecting projects that are ‘just manageable.’ If an activity is too easy, you lose focus and get bored. If it’s too hard, you become anxious, overwhelmed, and unable to concentrate.

If you are an avid reader this should sound familiar. This is where learning happens. This is how we get better. Back in early May, I wrote a post about how Kyle Bass feels freediving enables better decision making. A good chunk of that post echoes the statements that Gallagher makes above. If you are looking for challenging work or leisure that will help you maintain and even improve your ability to focus, I think Hobbs puts it best when he says the secret of fulfillment is, “to choose trouble for oneself in the direction of what one would like to become.”

To put it simply, you will know when something is worth your time because it will be engaging to you and focusing on those moments should feel almost effortless. Inversely, if you constantly find your mind wandering and you’re struggling to maintain your focus, it’s probably time to reassess how you are using your time. This is not to say that self-discipline and perseverance aren’t important, but if you want to be as productive as possible, asking yourself why you are doing a specific activity is just as important as hammering through it.

Once again Gallagher puts it nicely:

There are different formulas for the fulfilling experience variously described as ‘interesting,’ ‘peak,’ or ‘optimal,’ but rapt focus is central to all of them. Whether the equation’s other integers are the novel balanced with the familiar or the challenging with the enjoyable, they add up to the same thing: engagement in activities that arrest your attention and satisfy your soul. If most of the time you’re not particularly concerned about whether what you’re doing is work or play, or even whether you’re happy or not, you know you’re living the focused life.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

susan cain

“A species in which everyone was General Patton would not succeed, any more than would a race in which everyone was Vincent van Gogh. I prefer to think that the planet needs athletes, philosophers, sex symbols, painters, scientists; it needs the warmhearted, the hardhearted, the coldhearted, and the weakhearted. It needs those who can devote their lives to studying how many droplets of water are secreted by the salivary glands of dogs under which circumstances, and it needs those who can capture the passing impression of cherry blossoms in a fourteen-syllable poem or devote twenty -five pages to the dissection of a small boy’s feelings as he lies in bed in the dark waiting for his mother to kiss him goodnight.… Indeed the presence of outstanding strengths presupposes that energy needed in other areas has been channeled away from them.” — Allen Shawn

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain looks at how our lives are shaped by personality. Specifically she explores how where we land on the introvert-extrovert spectrum influences our choices, friends, conversations, careers, success, and even love. “It governs how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes, place big bets in the stock market, delay gratification, be a good leader, and ask “what if.”

It's also one of the most exhaustively researched subjects. It's not just scientists who've contemplated this, they are a rather recent addition. Poets and Philosophers have been “thinking about introverts and extroverts since the dawn of recorded time.”

[T]oday we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts— which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are. Depending on which study you consult, one third to one half of Americans are introverts— in other words, one out of every two or three people you know.

Surprising? That's because most introverts, like myself, pretend to be extroverts. I'm what you call a “closet introvert.”

It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal— the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual— the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.”

Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.

The extrovert ideal is alive and well.

Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking , more interesting, and more desirable as friends. Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones. The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent—even though there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas.

But, like anything, it's a mistake to embrace this ideal without thinking. Without introverts, we wouldn't have: the theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, Chopin's nocturnes, Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Peter Pan, Orwell's 1984, The Cat in the Hat, Charlie Brown, Schindler's List, E.T., Google, Harry Potter, or Farnam Street.

In How Heredity and Experience Make You Who You Are, the science journalist Winifred Gallagher writes: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc^2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”

Cain argues that it is not in spite of introversion that people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore, Warren Buffett, Gandhi and Rosa Parks achieve what they do, but, in part, because of it.

As society moves unconsciously toward an extroverted world—one of open offices, team everything, and organizations that value “people skills” above competence—introverts will have to adjust. But things like creativity and “innovation” will suffer.

If you're an introvert:

you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favor of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much,” a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral.

Of course, there’s another word for such people: thinkers.

After taking my MBTI, one of my professors defined introversion as “where you get your energy.” If you're extroverted you get energy from being around people, and if you're introverted you get it from being alone. But is there more to it than that? What exactly does it mean to say someone is introverted?

In 1921, psychologist Carl Jung had published a book, Psychological Types, that popularized the terms introvert and extrovert as the foundation of personality.

Discussing Jung's work, Cain writes:

Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.

The MBTI is based on Jung's work. But, you should know, there is no consensus on any of this. There are “almost as many definitions of introverts and extroverts as there are personality psychologists, who spend a great deal of time arguing over which meaning is most accurate.”

Still, today’s psychologists tend to agree on several important points: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle , or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.

(Introverts) prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

Whenever I tell someone I'm introverted the first thing they inevitably say is “you can't be an introvert. You're not shy.

Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not. One reason that people confuse the two concepts is that they sometimes overlap (though psychologists debate to what degree).

The bus to Abilene
Here is one particularly amusing anecdote from the book: The bus to Abilene. And this applies to everything from meetings to how we make decisions.

A well-known study out of UC Berkeley by organizational behavior professor Philip Tetlock found that television pundits—that is, people who earn their livings by holding forth confidently on the basis of limited information—make worse predictions about political and economic trends than they would by random chance. And the very worst prognosticators tend to be the most famous and the most confident—the very ones who would be considered natural leaders in an HBS classroom.

The U.S. Army has a name for a similar phenomenon: “the Bus to Abilene.” “Any army officer can tell you what that means,” Colonel (Ret.) Stephen J. Gerras, a professor of behavioral sciences at the U.S. Army War College, told Yale Alumni Magazine in 2008. “It’s about a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day, and somebody says, ‘I’m bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?’ When they get to Abilene, somebody says, ‘You know, I didn’t really want to go.’ And the next person says, ‘I didn’t want to go— I thought you wanted to go,’ and so on. Whenever you’re in an army group and somebody says, ‘I think we’re all getting on the bus to Abilene here,’ that is a red flag. You can stop a conversation with it. It is a very powerful artifact of our culture.”

The “Bus to Abilene” anecdote reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate action—any action.

Innovation
A lot of organizations want to encourage innovation with “positive” action. They hold up Google, Twitter, and Kickstarter as models of innovation. In a well-meaning attempt to encourage innovation they inevitably come up with a process that relies on presentation skills to sift ideas.

In his book Iconoclast, neuroeconomist Gregory Berns explores what happens when companies rely too heavily on presentation skills to sift ideas. “He describes a software company called Rite-Solutions,” Cain writes summarizing his work, “that successfully asks employees to share ideas through an online ‘idea market,' as a way of focusing on substance rather than style.”

(In Quiet Cain describes the company) Joe Marino, president of Rite-Solutions, and Jim Lavoie, CEO of the company, created this system as a reaction to problems they’d experienced elsewhere. “In my old company,” Lavoie told Berns, “if you had a great idea, we would tell you , ‘OK, we’ll make an appointment for you to address the murder board’ ”— a group of people charged with vetting new ideas. Marino described what happened next:

(Cain quoting: Iconoclast) Some technical guy comes in with a good idea. Of course questions are asked of that person that they don’t know. Like, “How big’s the market? What’s your marketing approach? What’s your business plan for this? What’s the product going to cost?” It’s embarrassing. Most people can’t answer those kinds of questions. The people who made it through these boards were not the people with the best ideas. They were the best presenters.

In his memoir, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, Steve Wozniak writes:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

Of course introverts are not necessarily more creative. The most creative or innovative people tend to ask questions, display a healthy disrespect for authority, a natural irreverence, and a stubborn streak. This suggests they may not work well as part of a team.

In explaining why introverts have a creative advantage, Cain writes:

[T]here’s a less obvious yet surprisingly powerful explanation for introverts’ creative advantage—an explanation that everyone can learn from: introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck once observed, introversion “concentrates the mind on the tasks in hand, and prevents the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”

In the end, creativity and innovation in organizations is about accepting and even encouraging differences. I'd caution organizations not to move too far towards the extroversion end of the spectrum (open offices, everything done in teams, promoting based on social skills above competence) without giving consideration to the effects that may have on some of your most creative people. A lot of things are better done by individuals than teams. It's ok to have offices. It's ok to have quiet. It doesn't work for everyone but it works for some of your best and possibly most misunderstood employees.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking is an interesting look at how letting the extrovert ideal run wild is a bad idea for creativity, decision making, and cognitive diversity.

Improve Your Life by Paying Attention

rapt

“Few things are as important to your quality of life as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time,” writes Winifred Gallagher, author of the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.

That your experience largely depends on the material objects and mental subjects that you choose to pay attention to or ignore is not an imaginative notion, but a physiological fact. When you focus on a stop sign or a sonnet, a waft of perfume or a stock-market tip, your brain registers that “target,” which enables it to affect your behavior. In contrast, the things that you don’t attend to in a sense don’t exist, at least for you.

All day long, you are selectively paying attention to something, and much more often than you may suspect, you can take charge of this process to good effect. Indeed, your ability to focus on this and suppress that is the key to controlling your experience and, ultimately, your well-being.

What is attention anyways?

Attention is commonly understood as “the concentration of the mental powers” or “the direction or application of the mind to any object of sense or thought. Recently, however, a rare convergence of insights from both neuroscience and psychology suggests a paradigm shift in how to think about this cranial laser and its role in behavior: thoughts, feelings, and actions. Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.

If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called “reality.” You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different.

If this sounds a lot like mindfulness, you're on the right track. And there is no one better to learn from than Sherlock Holmes.

So if attention is the key, what should you pay attention to? The positive.

… Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shows that paying attention to positive emotions literally expands your world, while focusing on negative feelings shrinks it — a fact that has important implications for your daily experience.

You have the ability to control what you focus on …

As to the idea that the ability to focus on this rather than on that gives you control over your experience and well being, Kahneman says that both the Dalai Lama and the Penn positive psychologist Martin Seligman would agree about the importance of paying attention: “Being able to control it gives you a lot of power, because you know that you don’t have to focus on a negative emotion that comes up.”

At the end of a discussion of attention and decision-making, Kahneman remarks on research that suggests older people connect more with the experiencing self, which is inclined to pay rapt attention to little everyday delights, like sunbeams dancing on water or music drifting through a window.

Always look on the bight side.

As the abundance of vaguely annoying sayings such as “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” proves, the idea of restoring emotional equilibrium by refocusing on a problem in a different way is not new. What is is the impressive research that increasingly shows that Pollyanna’s insistence on “looking at the bright side,” even in tough situations, is a powerful predictor of a longer, happier, healthier life.

If a snowstorm prevents a trip to the store for groceries, one person curses the weather and has a rotten day, while another quickly focuses on what a good thing it is to be snug inside and to have that nice leftover meatloaf. Research on the so-called cognitive appraisal of emotions, pioneered by the psychologists Magda Arnold and Richard Lazarus, confirms that what happens to you, from a blizzard to a pregnancy to a job transfer, is less important to your well-being than how you respond to it. Because your reaction to any event is at least partly a matter of interpretation, the aspects you concentrate on become what the UNC psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls “leverage points” for a simple attentional-attitudinal adjustment that works as an emotional “reset button.” If you want to get over a bad feeling, she says, “focusing on something positive seems to be the quickest way to usher out the unwanted emotion.”

That’s not to say that when something upsetting happens, you immediately try to force yourself to “be happy.” First, says Fredrickson, you examine “the seed of emotion,” or how you honestly feel about what occurred. Then you direct your attention to some element of the situation that frames things in a more helpful light. After a big blowup over an equitable sharing of the housework, rather than continuing to concentrate on your partner’s selfishness and sloth, you might focus on the fact that at least a festering conflict has been aired, which is the first step toward a solution to the problem, and to your improved mood. Interestingly, people who are depressed and anhedonic—unable to feel pleasure—have particular trouble using this venerable attentional self-help tactic. This difficulty suggests to Fredrickson that they suffer from a dearth of happiness rather than a surfeit of sadness: “It’s as if the person’s positive emotional systems have been zapped or disabled.”

How you react to life is more important than what happens. Those are the words that legendary psychiatrist and Auschwitz-survivor, Viktor Frankl, so aptly found out the hard way. In Man's Search for Meaning, he wrote:

Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance, to choose one’s own way.

Oh, and one more thing. While we think that shopping makes us feel better, it doesn't.

Despite your initial excitement and a high price tag, adaptation guarantees that your focus will soon stray from the wondrous pleasures of your new computer or larger apartment, consigning them to mere comfort status. Rather than binging on such big, costly amenities, a better — and cheaper — strategy for boosting your daily satisfaction quotient would be to add many more simple, inexpensive ones … After all, on any given Monday morning, your comfortable bank balance pales beside a good cup of coffee.

Paying attention to what you pay attention to is a simple point. If you think multi-tasking is the answer: it isn't. Reading Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, is a quick reminder that what you focus on can literally change your world.

Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change

new - understanding our need for

In New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, Winifred Gallagher writes:

[O]ur fast-paced world invites us to see ourselves in yet another light—this time as nature's virtuosos of change, who are biologically as well as psychologically primed to engage with novelty.

Our ability to respond to the new and different is part of what makes us human. We're simply more interested in whatever is outside of that status quo. Generally, this interest serves us well. In an evolutionary context it has likely saved us from extinction several times.

While our affinity for seeking the new offered an advantage in a world without the Internet, it has never been tested in a world like today. The pace of information generation is crazy.

Gallagher fears the consequences of failing to become more discerning about our consumption.

To survive, you must be aroused by the new and different. To be efficient and productive, however, you must focus your finite mental energy and attention on those novel sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that somehow matter and screen out the rest. Just as arousal alerts and orients you to new things, the complementary process of adaptation helps you filter out the unimportant ones.

Neophilia

Neophilia arises from the dual dynamic of seeking out something new and then getting used to it, which frees “and perhaps even spurs [us] to search for the next stimulus.” Put differently, neophilia is our affinity to novelty.

We're attracted to the new and novel, often at the expense of “old” and status quo. We gravitate towards narratively sexy stories (derived from theories based on very little data) at the cost of knowledge.

“Like most behavior, neophilia occurs on a spectrum,” she writes. Our ability to survive and thrive derived from balancing “the sometimes conflicting needs to avoid risk and approach rewards.”

Evolution

We've been programed by evolution to think that vital information is likely to come from the new or unfamiliar. All living creatures do this to some extent.

A swerving car on the highway, a jump in your bad cholesterol, or a drop in a stock's value rivets your attention and jangles your nerves, which prime you to protect yourself from harm.

Other things like an exciting IPO or the new coffee shop that just opened lure us in as well. They are new and unknown.

Dodging risks and seeking rewards both make good evolutionary sense, but variations in nature and nurture incline individuals to prioritize them differently.

Some of us are more risk taking than others. Most of us want “to be neither scared stiff by too much novelty and change nor bored by too little.”

To balance our risk tolerance and our need for security, we generally seek the new and different in our “intellectual, creative, and recreational pursuits than in domains that require continuity and familiarity, such as … close relationships or professional commitments.”

In other words, we follow Alexander Pope's advice: “Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.”

Extremes

While not necessarily important to individual success, the extremes are important to the success of the group as a whole.

Nature promotes a species' survival and flexibility by ensuring diversity within a population, not an individual. Whatever the costs for a particular person …

Some of us live fast and die young. By experimenting and exploring, these people push the envelope for the rest of us. The cautious among us, the other extreme, “might have avoided a major recession.”

Wherever you sit on the spectrum, you can more skillfully consider your response to novelty and change.

Environment

Our mental and physical environment helps shape our attitudes to novelty and change.

Like individuals, societies struggle to balance the need to survive, which prioritizes safety and stability, with the desire to thrive, which requires stimulation and exploration. For most of history, this tug-of-war has inclined cultural change, like the biological sort, to occur not in a smooth progression but in an uneven, unpredictable process, of fits and starts that scientists call punctuated equilibrium. Something new, whether climate change, an important tool such as the plow or computer, or a political upheaval, prompts a period of innovation that takes a society to the next level. Like the Pax Romana, this stable plateau can last for a great while until, perhaps following an era of decline like the Dark Ages, there's another leap forward, as in the Renaissance.

Information Obesity

We are now in the age of information obesity.

At this point in our warp-speed information age, our well-being demands that we understand and control our neophilia lest it control us. We already crunch four times more data — e-mail, tweets, searches, music, video, and traditional media — than we did just thirty years ago, and this deluge shows no signs of slackening. To thrive amid unprecedented amounts of novelty, we must shift from being mere seekers of the new to being connoisseurs of it.

Incomplete Thoughts

Information is abundant today and access is near frictionless. Novelty abounds. Gallagher calls this “a mental version of the perfect storm.”

We feel as if consuming more information makes us better off. Yet when the information we consume is novel, we lose track of what's important.

Novelty is non-linear in dosage. What is good in small quantities is horrible in large quantities. In small doses the side effects are manageable. In large doses they take over.

It becomes harder to distinguish signal from noise.

In the past, our consumption of information contained a much higher ratio of signal to noise.

As the difficulty to create, disseminate, and consume information reduced, the amount of noise increased at a pace that signal couldn't match. The signal is still there but now more than ever, it's getting lost in the noise.

We're also confusing information for knowledge. And we're psychologically wired to over-react to information (novelty and noise). One consequence is that we lose sight of meaning.

Is it our ability to selectively focus on what's important that's helped us adapt? If noise is easy to produce and the demand to produce it is unrelenting, does this place more importance on our information consumption habits? What role does the filter bubble play?