Attention and Breathing in the Digital Age

The resources and actions that have been the most significant for me personally and professionally lately have been reflections on the interaction between the digital and physical worlds, how they can empower each other, and what dangers lurk in the relationships between the two.  The choice of an article by a fellow classmate triggered a reflection on how I think when using technology, and how those experiences color my world.  The information contained in the article was actually not new, but the presence of it at this moment in time was a catalyst for both behavioral and perspective shifts in my increasingly integrated life.

This post is a reflection on the article You’re Distracted.  This Professor Can Help.  The context of the article was that we have become increasingly distracted in an increasingly digital world.  Our focus – collectively – is lessened by the continual multitasking in which we engage.  In other contexts, I have heard of this referred to as “constant partial attention”.  The myth of multitasking is ubiquitous, and yet the neuroscience reveals that the mind can focus attention on only one thing at a time.

Incredibly, even if we consider ourselves to be good at multitasking, each time the brain switches back and forth between tasks, time is lost, rendering the “benefits” of multitasking as “liabilities”.

The importance of this, in my field, in my life, is critical.  This has been a message of synchronicity, reinforcing other changes that are currently evolving in my life.  The focus on meditation as a way to prepare and calm the mind dovetails with my heat yoga teacher’s instruction that keeps repeating in my brain: “it is a moving meditation, so your eyes are always open”.

The concept of focus in general is a critical one to our productivity, but more so even for our creativity.  In a role I held a few years back – that of an instructional designer – I afforded myself the uninterrupted space to be creative and productive.  I have lost that ability to lock myself away, partly due to the vicissitudes of my current position, partly due to the needs of my team, partly due to the nature of the unit, as technology crises happen universally at inconvenient times.  It is a stressful environment.  It is highly charged with a lack of institutional focus and clarity, which compounds the overall anxiety of the team.

Parry (2013) writes “Buddhism 101: Suffering is an inescapable part of life. You can avoid some of it. Much angst stems from failing to be aligned with the present moment, as the mind cycles through anxieties about past and future. Meditation trains the mind to focus on the present” (para. 24).  It seems strange to write of fear and suffering – as though I and everyone I know has Digital Deficit Disorder (I deeply hope that is an invention of my mind).  The anxiety is real, it bleeds into everything, it reflects a lack of discipline, a lack of control, of calm, of clarity.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Functionally, this article has precipitated changes in several of my working strategies (and hopefully habits).  First, my team has weekly hour and a half long meetings where we review the status of each of the ongoing eLearning technologies we support, including our learning management system, lecture capture, synchronous web conferencing, etc., as well as all pilot and emerging technology projects, escalated help tickets relating to eLearning technologies, and updates on college-wide initiatives.  This is a “real time” meeting.  If emails need to be sent to others with questions, if notes need to be made for follow-up, I ask that those types of tasks to be done right there.  This has been generally effective in staying on track with the many things on which we’re working.

I’ve always had my tablet open, taking occasional notes on things that our discussions remind me of, checking email during dead airspace, and in general trying to squeeze every instant of productivity out of the meeting.  Upon reflection, I wasn’t actually being “present” – I was there, I was getting things done, we were productive, but I wasn’t giving my full attention.  I believe this impacts the team dynamic – the impression it sends, no matter how subtle, is that my time is more valuable than theirs.  This is not the case.  I view my role as being a combination of facilitator, fixer, resource-gatherer, strategist and protector.  My biggest responsibility is to my team because it is through their work that we accomplish things.

In our team meeting this week, I closed my tablet.  I opened it up to send a follow-up question to someone that we needed an answer from, but we paused the meeting for a moment.  We paused it when another team member did the same.  It felt more like a huddle.  I explained what I was doing before I did it – modeling transparency of course – but also indicating that I was not ill, the only other plausible explanation for a brief absence from my plugged-in self.

Breathe in, breathe out.

A second change that I’ve implemented is in journaling.  I’ve written in a journal, on and off, for many years.  It has a very focused and constructive purpose.  It is a habit of reflection, a reminder of gratitude.  Often I am so exhausted I have “no time” to journal.  Journaling is a very visceral experience for me – the action of opening up the maroon leather cover, the lifting of the ribbon to separate the pages to where I last left off, the selection of a pen that writes with ease and with saturated color, the faint sound of the pen on the page.  Even the look of my handwriting is a reflection.

I’ve been coming back to journaling more and more in the past few months.  It is becoming a habit anew.  Doing things – staying busy, being productive, getting things done – is really an illusion.  There are always more things to do.  One is never done.

My attraction to this article started with the connection to the digital world, a world in which I am steeped.  The backlit screen has become an ever-present halo in my life.  There is a flow to discoveries, to things that have changed me, and I was ready to listen, in fact I was longing to hear this article.  It was confirmation – I wasn’t the only one persistently concerned with what this frenetic, even frantic, “productivity” and “connectedness” was doing.

I do not believe in the false distinction between the personal and the professional.  They are part of the same life, and any illusion of “balance” implies that one or the other is always getting less attention at any given time.  A focus gained in one is a personal practice that can be implemented and embraced in the other.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Just as this article applied to the practice of journaling, it also applied to my yoga practice.  Once a week, I teach yoga at work – a rather non-traditional blend of power yoga and Pilates.  During this practice, I remind us to collectively breathe, to push ourselves, to clear our minds.  My mind, however, is not clear.  I think about the pose we are doing, what corrections to mention, what to let go, when to encourage, when to be silent.  It is much like teaching – a thousand decisions a minute, all of which impact the experience for the learner.  Guiding others to be present – does that necessitate the temporary loss of presence for ourselves?  I have been attempting to use the chatter to get rid of the chatter.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Life is flesh and blood and bone and suffering.  Technology is a tool, and like all tools, it needs to be used effectively.  Collectively, we should be using the technology; it should not be using us.


Parry, M. (2013, March 24). You’re Distracted. This Professor Can Help. – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved March 10, 2014, from


  1. Well Sasha, this article I just read by you is as if I was looking over your shoulder. How spot on, how down to the smallest point, how clairvoyant and prescient. And always there is the looming responsibility of satisfying the machine which, essentially, is insatiable – at least by all the standards I have analyzed to date.

    There has been, about machines, an unwritten, unspoken mantra voiced silently by the millions of humans who have been hitched to them since the Industrial Revolution. That voiceless mantra says, incessantly, ‘run me’- ‘run me.’ And, because it is an engine of production – something always drops out of the end of the machine – we are enthralled that we have ‘produced’ something- a veritable feather in our cap and a pat on the head. It would have to be, for men, the female equivalent of giving birth to a live human being – something men can never do.

    But, unfortunately, we have all learned, via Henry Ford and Walmart, that the machine
    is truly insatiable, having no care at all for its human creators, engineers, janitors, or the thousands of others that support them. Machines (read; all technology) can be set on ‘eternal’ if that is a good word to imply perpetual motion. Relieving us of the more cumbersome and dangerous chores, it has also monopolized our sources of information, how we communicate, when, with whom,and has summarily eliminated all the competition.

    So it is no surprise at all -breathe in, breathe out – that the most elementary functions of the human person and body are jeopardized, and threatened, because of this ubiquitous mechanism looming in our faces, with no small chance of retreating anytime soon – like the next century, if that!!!

    What to do????

    Your example of opening the tablet, during the meeting, and immediately closing it, is as close as we get to controlling it vs. it controlling us. I have the utmost sympathy for those in front of a computer for 8 hours – perish the thought!!!
    Attention spans, as you well know, are now down to 7 or 8 minutes!!! We might pick something up from Michelangelo – it took him four (4) years to complete the Sistine Chapel ceiling – almost 2 years (on again/off again) to chisel ‘David’ to perfection, and just about as long to complete the ‘Pieta.’ But then, NONE of these tasks or labors had anything to do with a ‘machine’ – if the winches on the chapel scaffolds for hauling buckets of paint quallfy.

    The machine wants us to respond in kind – instantaneously, perfectly, continuously – and it is prescient that every machine invented thus far is ALWAYS measured by the skill dexterity, and speed of its human operator!!! The most precision instrument yet invented is useless until a human being activates its functions – for terror or for beneficence.

    • We have to determine what we’re using the tools for – and when! Of course, I’m also a self-professed geek, but in this case, balance is key. – Sasha

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