How Howard does it: attention master at work

This is a great video in which Howard Rheingold (using Screenr, an interesting Twitter screencasting tool) explains his process, his workflow, for gathering information and putting it to work (or turning information into knowledge as he says).
The simple five-minute walkthrough is very useful to me personally, as I am thinking about both how I process information / knowledge and how to define and explain these processes and the digital literacies involved to others. Howard teaches digital media at Stanford and urges his students to use these tools as part of their work – so he has some strong insights to offer (to say the least).
There is so much information out there, in Twitter streams, in Google, in Delicious, in email in Facebook, in the articles that we read online, that the challenges for knowledge workers are becoming acute, specifically:
  • Attention: How do you focus on relevant things and not get distracted by the endless fascinating things being discussed in your social networks. Or as Howard has explained it before, how do you learn to switch from diffuse attention, where you are open to your network’s inputs and focused attention where you hone in on the thinking and effort around a single task, such as writing a report or chapter of a book. (The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr expands on issues around how we pay attention online and in deep thinking/reading long-form text, by the way – more to come on this from soon.)
  • Creating value / knowledge: Twitter for example, is wonderful. But you could spend all your time playing the game that is Twitter, collecting and sharing links with your ever-expanding network without ever turning the links into working knowledge, adding your perspective.
Blogging, for me, is one tactic for refining information into knowledge in this way (which is partly why I get twitchy if I don’t write a post for a long time). The discipline of switching my attention to creating a post and not diving back into the Twitter stream hunting for new hits of exciting information, is a way of of re-stating what I have learned in my own words.
That act of writing, reporting and analysising (even briefly) that both really understanding what I am reading and connecting it with other ideas, creating my own perspective. Sometimes that perspective adds value in my network, sometimes it just helps me understand things better (usually you don’t know which it will be – usefulness in networks is hard to predict).

In the video, Howard talks about various stages in this example process of turning information into knowledge. How I heard them was…
  • Tuning his network to get useful information: His Twitter network is tuned to topics he is interested in (multiple topics might be focused with Twitter lists, of course) and he uses Twitter searches to find new inputs.
  • Collecting/curating information: Useful sources of information are stored as annotated bookmarks in his Diigo / Delicious databases.
  • Refining the information in his own databases: Devonthink, a desktop personal database,?is put to work to categorise and combine bookmarks and documents, snippets of information. He is making sense of it, turning links and articles into personal, working knowledge.
  • Turning the information into knowledge: Howard describes the whole process as being about turning information into knowledge. In this case, he is writing a book about attention (which I can’t wait to read) – the Devonthink data informs his writing in the Scrivener application (which helps authors combine notes and draft manuscript elements in a clever way).

We need to be aware of how our own workflow/thinking processes work, for the simple reason that they are new, evolving, emerging. There are no neat sets of productivity tools available with a training course – we hack together our personal collections of tools and behaviours (I don’t use Devonthink for instance, and have done no more than dabble in things like Diigo and Scrivener, that Howard mentions as key elements of his process) that work for us.

Image (cc) RuffLife

To keep working effectively we need to be able to critically reflect on our own behaviours and adjust them. With practice it gets easier to do this. I think of the stages of the process like a kind of graphic equaliser – I’ll tinker with the levels as I go along, but as I get better at it I know there are pre-set patterns that will work best for different types of work: writing a speech may require little collecting from the network, but a focus on refining the information I have already collected my Delicious and my blog, whereas writing my new book will require tuning my network, interrogating it for new data and connections.

: : Note to self: One useful exercise we might carry out to examine our own processes and practices would be to turn on a screencasting tool and capture how we browse and what we do with what we find.

7 responses to “How Howard does it: attention master at work”

  1. Thanks Anthony for building on Howard’s piece with your own experience.
    Sharing workflow seems to me very important when there are now so many different devices, apps, and situations. “How do I do that” is a very contextual question … but at the same time we need to lear from each other.
    I’ve just pitched the idea of a space to share workflows in to the beta Simpl platform being developed by Futuregov. Do you think it is worth following up?
    I’m currently struggling with joining up Twitter, Google Reader, Diigo, Evernote, Amplify, WordPress, Ning on iPad and Mac.

  2. Thanks for your comment, David – sharing workflows sounds like a great idea and I would be really interested in finding out more.

    It would also be interesting to know what tasks you are struggling to create workflows for. The platforms and tools will only really fit together in a good workflow if it is designed with the end in mind…

  3. Hi Antony – here’s the Sharing workflows idea below.
    Your nudge on “what for” is a good one. That purpose thing. It’s easy to say blogging … but then what’s the purpose of blogging these days? Howard has a book in mind, which sets me thinking about nested objectives: curating in order to blog, tweet etc leading to a book/wiki: or around a specific project.


    Create a simple showcase where people can share the pathways they use on mobile and desktop devices – for example, to find and store information, and turn it into knowledge.

    The problem
    Mobile and web apps are making it easier to accomplish specific tasks – but it is still difficult to work across apps and create a sequence of actions that work for you. One example is scanning information from many sources, storing it, organising, and then creating content for blogs, articles, books. Recently Howard Rheingold produced a short video of how he does this, and Anthony Mayfield added his own comments here.

    Without the ability to create workflows appropriate to your situation, offers of more apps just become confusing. Standardised organisational workflows are difficult to create when people will increasingly use a mix of mobile and desktop devices, and social media apps that demand flexible approaches.

    The idea

    Ideally we might create a place where experienced users like Howard could share their workflows, and others could ask “how can I do that”.

    The workflow stories could link to how-to resources … and of course to projects and offers the storytelling might wish to feature.

    What we need
    A demonstration from a group of workflow storytellers to test with others and see whether there is value in the approach.

  4. I love the idea, David – I’d really like to see something like this happen. Thanks for this comment, it helped me to write this post about workflows: Desgining your workflow: the ultimate New Year’s resolution

  5. Great read Anthony and like you, I’m keen to read Howard’s take on attention. I’m also glad it prompted the post of Workflows for 2011, which led me to this original post.

    I’ve been ruminating on this area for a little while both from the writer’s perspective, especially as I’ve struggled with innumerable distractions every time I need to write anything longer than a 20-word email response.

    Creating a workflow, then a work outline and establishing your preferred tools in advance provides a solid foundation for research without the distractions of tinkering with new ways of gathering and codifying this information.

    I’ve also got a nagging feeling that hypertext might actually be a hindrance rather than a benefit for blogging. Sounds nuts, I know, but how many times have you started reading a post, clicked on a link, then followed another reference link whilst never finishing the original piece?

    Since links in the early part of blog posts, or emails for that matter get most clicks, there’s an interesting challenge here.

    And just to underline the ease of procrastination, I’d better get back to the blog post I’m supposed to be writing. And as if to double-underline, I’m also checking out Diigo, thanks to your recommendation ;-)

    Happy New Year!

  6. Hi Sam – You’re right that hypertexts facilitate distraction, but they definitely help as much as hinder the reading experience. Ultimately it comes down to what Howard would call Attention Literacy – the ability to focus in different ways at different times, depending on what you are trying to achieve. Reading chunks of content in their entirety isn’t appropriate for every task, nor is skimming them and disappearing down link trails…

    Another way of putting it is – there’s more than one way to read a blog post, and it isn’t necessarily the authors responsibility to choose which way someone will use their text.

    Perhaps when we move beyond narrowing web disciplines like SEO and social media, we will start to think about optimising for attention. And that will mean optimising for different types of attention…

  7. […] explains how digital literacy is evolving. Everything he talked about before – literacies of attention, participation, crap detection, collaboration and “network know-how” stands, says […]

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