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Cultivating Attention and Awareness in Teams

| by Ben Linders Follow 12 Followers on Jan 12, 2017. Estimated reading time: 4 minutes |

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Technology makes it easier to collaborate, but it also distracts us and can have negative consequences on the quality and content of our personal interactions. The mere presence of a cell phone can pull you away from a task and reduce your focus, said Jeffery Hackert. He suggests to cultivate attention, awareness and empathy when working in teams.

Jeffery Hackert, VP of Engineering at Soylent, spoke about ethics in a distracted world at GOTO Berlin 2016. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

Hackert did an exercise at GOTO Berlin where he asked the attendees to put their device (cell phone, tablet, etc.) down, put their feet flat down on the ground and sit straight up. Next he asked them to take a deep breath in and out, feel the breathe, relax and do that for one minute. One minute feels longer than you think, said Hackert.

People are often distracted in meetings, working on their laptop or phone, or looking out of the window. Craftsmanship requires that we pay attention to what we are doing, said Hackert. We can cultivate attention and awareness, which in turn leads to more ethical choices.

InfoQ interviewed Jeffery Hackert after his talk about how new technology impacts the way we communicate and the benefits of using technology for collaboration, what you can do to cultivate attention, awareness and empathy when working in teams, and asked him tips for giving and receiving uninterrupted attention.

InfoQ: How does new technology impact the way we communicate?

Jeffery Hackert: New technology impacts the way we communicate by introducing a third party into nearly all our interactions. It’s not just the screen (mobile, tablet, computer), although the impact of devices is considerable. One study I read showed that cognitive capability is diminished by the presence of a smart phone, regardless of who owns it. The fact of its presence is a distraction, calling to mind the things we might do or have done in the past (check twitter, Facebook, etc.). It is clear to me from personal observation at work and at home and from a decade of research, that the move to replace social interactions with device centers interactions has negative consequences on the quality and content of our personal interactions.

InfoQ: What are the benefits of using technology for collaboration? And what are the risks?

Hackert: The benefits are many - as Marc Andreessen famously said, "Software is eating the world." There is almost no form of interaction that we do not prefer to have mediated by software. This allows advanced automation, quick fact recovery, high performance gains in knowledge work, new learning opportunities… The list of real and potential value is staggering - much too long to list here. And yet, our current sophistication in terms of how we interact with this technology is largely market driven, and that has considerable impact in terms of how we interact with them. UX and Behavior Design (see my friend BJ Fogg’s work or read this article on the scientists who make apps addictive) put the idea of an app’s stickiness in the forefront regardless of the nature of the tasks performed by that app - the impact of the effort to drive people through the sales funnel is often a sort of addiction to interactions. Not every interaction with the world should be gamed like a slot machine.

InfoQ: What can you do to cultivate attention, awareness and empathy when working in teams?

Hackert: This will sound overly simple, but here goes: start by bringing your full attention to the team. Leave your device at your desk (not in your pocket or on the table). Start where you are. Design meetings that do not require devices. Take walks during your one-on-ones. Get a notebook and journal a little. It’s funny, these are largely the same things you would do to gain a more contemplative or mindful approach to life. The key is to have human interactions without distraction. For awhile this will be difficult. Most of us have trained ourselves to fill any downtime with activity (social media, Google searches, etc.). You will need to let that go.

InfoQ: Which tips do you have for people who want to give and receive uninterrupted attention?

Hackert: Set aside 3 - 5 minutes 3 times a day and just try to cultivate attention on a single object (your breathing, walking, juggle if you like)- just bring your whole self to the practice. I would say any sitting practice that helps you sort out emotions, physical feelings and body sensations is going to be helpful. The key is to understand that life is only real, ethics are only possible, where your attention rests - where awareness is present. I know that sounds pretty hippy-like, but if you have experienced flow as a software developer, or an artist, athlete, gamer, then you know what I’m talking about.

Pro Tip: start with yourself. Avoid the pratfall of encouraging others to change their behavior. It’s all you, kid :)

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