Who has time for all that?

I gave up multitasking a long time ago. I realized that I’m not good at it, and started paying attention so that I could notice when I was doing it and stop.

As an aside, I should mention that there’s now quite a bit of research to show that nobody is good at multitasking, and that the people who think they’re good at it are even worse than the people who know they’re not.

Even though I’m more efficient doing one thing with complete focus and then going on to the next thing, that practice alone doesn’t solve the underlying problem that tempts people into multitasking: How else can I get everything done?

Half of the answer to that is the drearily obvious, “You can’t. What you can do is get a whole lot done, if you quit frittering away your time on trivial, pointless stuff, and apply your time doing the most important stuff.”

I know some people who are pretty good at that, and they are routinely way more productive than me or most other people.

But there’s more to it than that. Katy Bowman has been talking about one useful practice, suggesting that you “stack your life” by accomplishing multiple goals at once—something that sounds suspiciously like multitasking, but really isn’t.

I’ve actually been thinking about this quite a bit, wanting to articulate the difference for my own sake if no one else’s. My take on it, is that it has to do with what the limiting resource is for each activity.

There are a lot of limiting resources. Your hands are one—they can really only do one thing at a time (although my mom used to read, fan herself, and drink lemonade all at the same time, and felt like she was being very efficient). Location is another—something that can only be done in the kitchen can’t be stacked with an activity that can only be done in the garage or the gym or the grocery store. Other people are another—something that requires the presence of another person can’t be done without him or her. (Though it’s not that simple, as sometimes you can stack up the other people and get multiple things done with multiple people.)

In multitasking, the limiting resource is your attention, and what’s unique about attention is that many activities can be done with partial attention. That experience tempts us into thinking that attention is more divisible than it really is.

Washing dishes only takes partial attention, meaning that you can listen to the radio or a podcast and get full benefit out of both activities.

Driving is a more complex example. We know that driving sometimes requires your full attention. This is why talking on the phone is unsafe to do while driving—talking on the phone requires enough of your attention that doing so reduces your competence at driving as much as getting drunk does. (Talking to someone in the car with you is much less unsafe, because that person can see when the road conditions are such that you need your full attention and shut up. Just listening to something—the radio or a podcast—does not seem to cause the same problem, probably for reasons having to do with deep structures in the brain that prioritize social interactions.)

Even though there are plenty of activities that can be done with partial attention, most important activities require full attention to be done well.

Writing a blog post can be done with partial attention, but when I try to do it while simultaneously listening to a podcast, checking my twitter and facebook feeds, chatting with a friend on-line and another in-person, and answering the occasional email message, I don’t do it as well.

As I’ve worked to apply this lesson—noticing when I’m multitasking and then refocusing on the main thing I’m doing—I’ve learned something else: Many activities that don’t require full attention turn out better when I give it to them anyway.

Beyond that, I feel better when I give my full attention to whatever I’m doing.

It was the meditation practice that I adopted as part of my taiji practice that taught me this. First, it taught me the skill of paying attention, then it taught me that paying attention to what I was doing right now paid dividends, even when all I was doing was sitting or standing.

I’ve noticed it particularly with exercise. I used to distract myself from exercise with music or podcasts or games like Zombies, Run!, because I found exercise to be unpleasant drudgery that I only engaged in to the extent necessary to build and maintain a basic level of fitness. I don’t do that any more. It’s much better when I fully embody my exercise: I enjoy it more, I’m less prone to injury, and the exercise is more effective.

The more I do this—give my full attention to whatever it is I’m doing, whether it seems worthy of full attention or not—the more I find it worthwhile.

Downside: I’m falling behind on my podcast listening, because there are so few things were I feel like partial attention is all they deserve. Maybe I’ll find more, but at the moment I’m just about down to riding on the bus.

So, yes: Stack your life. If you can do one thing with your brain, one thing with your hands, and one thing with your feet all at the same time, go for it. But think twice before dividing your attention. If something is worth doing, it may well be worth your full attention, no matter how hard that makes it to get everything done.

Prairie Spiderweb

Gamifying exercise: motivating AND appalling

There’s a good Oliver Burkeman piece in the Guardian on gamification, or what Jane McGonigal calls living gamefully: using “the same psychological principles, featuring mini-challenges, systems for winning points, completing quests and moving upwards through levels,” to motivate people to do ordinary real-world stuff like exercise or go to work. Burkeman suggests that gamification “reliably divides people into those energized by it and those utterly appalled,” so I wanted to call myself out as an exception, because I’m both.

First of all, I’m totally in the target audience for this sort of thing. I remember seeing this comic in 2006, back when I was still working a regular job, and finding it spoke deeply to me.

xkcd comic Exercise by Randall Munroe

I bought both Zombies, Run! and Superhero Workout by Six to Start, two games that gamify exercise. I found myself strongly motivated to get out and run, even in winter cold, by the story in Zombies, Run!

More recently, I’ve observed myself strangely motivated by Google Fit. Even though my goal is self-set, and the reward for achieving it is merely a splash of orange lines and a “bling” sound, I have been known to nip out in the late evening to walk another six minutes just to get my walking time for the day up to my 90-minute goal.

I would pay serious money for a more clever version of Google Fit—one that could count not only time and distance walking, running, and bicycling, but also keep track of my crawling, hanging, climbing, jumping, balancing, throwing & catching, lifting & carrying, swimming & diving, and grappling & striking.

On the other hand, I recognize that this is fundamentally an error—the same error I talked about just a few days ago, when I explained that, although it’s in my nature to want to figure out what I need and make a plan to get it, I recognize that it’s a mistake. It’s a mistake because the “figuring it out” step is both impossible (intractably complex) and unnecessary (get ample natural movement and you’ll be fine).

And yet . . . . And yet, it is a fact that my life does not have enough natural movement in it. Given that I’m not going to become a hunter-gatherer (and would probably starve to death in a few months, if I didn’t die sooner from exposure or an accident), perhaps “living gamefully” is useful as a way to motivate myself and to keep track of the exercise I need to replace the movement I’m not getting.

Missing my zombies

I’ve praised the game Zombie’s, Run! several times over the past couple of years. It’s great fun. It’s gotten me out several times to run in weather cold enough that I’d have otherwise just stayed inside. It’s kept me company on several treadmill runs that I’d otherwise not have finished. But I haven’t played it in quite a while, because more and more I find that I want to be fully present in my runs.

This isn’t a big change. I’ve never been much on listening to music or the radio or audio books while walking or running, and not just because of the various dangers, from traffic or muggers or stray dogs or whatever. (Those dangers are real, both from having your ears covered and from being distracted, but I think they’re pretty small, and pretty easy to ameliorate through simple things like looking carefully at road crossings.)

The main reason I didn’t listen to things while running was that I enjoyed running, and didn’t want miss the experience. (And of course, mindful exercise is more effective than distracted exercise.)

Maybe it’s a pretty good compromise to distract myself from my unpleasant workouts—trudging through the cold, running on the treadmill—and maybe I’ll do that again next winter. But lately I’d had no inclination to distract myself.

I feel sorry for the people who find exercise so unpleasant that they need to be distracted from what they’re actually doing. I enjoy my runs too much to want to miss them by being immersed in a fictional world—even a fictional world as much fun as Zombies, Run!

Doesn’t mean I don’t miss my zombies.

The luxury of inattention

I read a lot about fitness.

Non-fiction about fitness can be motivating. I find it especially useful to read when I shouldn’t workout due to injury. It lets me maintain momentum through a period when I’d otherwise be idle. I also find fiction about getting in shape to be motivating. (Either one is generally a lot more motivating than most of what passes for fitness motivation. I’d meant to link that to the motivation stream in the “Fitness” community I follow in Google Plus, but decided against it. Too much of the so-called motivation is either demotivating or outright offensive.)

There’s an issue with this source of motivation: both fiction and non-fiction come with a worldview—a model of what fitness is, what it’s for, what behaviors lead to it.

This is noticeable in non-fiction, particularly when the model is weird as to its goals or methods. But it’s especially noticeable in fiction, because then it gets bound up with the goals of the fictional characters. For example, the hero in Greg Rucka’s Critical Space (I’ve mentioned the fitness montage in the middle of that book before, as a good example of the sort of thing I find motivating) is getting in shape to be ready to defend against an assassin.

As long as I’m choosing reasonable behaviors that lead to fitness in a model of my choice, I figure the fact that there’s an action hero doing some of the same stuff is harmless.

Sometimes the fictional character’s worldview resonates with me. For example, one thing Rucka’s hero describes is that learning how to carry himself—learning how to be balanced, centered—teaches him how to see that in other people. My taiji practice has begun to produce the same result in me. I notice when people do or don’t have a good vertical structure, something that I never would have thought to notice before.

Other times the fictional character’s worldview holds nuggets that are genuinely worth picking up. It’s common, for example, for a hero to get better at paying attention to what’s going on—to be more vigilant and watchful. Clearly a useful perspective if you’re living in a thriller or an action-adventure, but probably even if you’re not. Paying attention to what’s going on around you is just good advice. Even if you’re not being targeted by an assassin, being inattentive makes you more vulnerable to everything from muggings to being hit by a car.

Which brings me to the title of this post. As someone who does not live in a thriller or action-adventure, I have the luxury of not paying attention.

As one specific example, when I play Ingress, I pay very close attention indeed—but the focus of my attention is on the fictional augmented reality of the game. Despite its grounding in the actual built environment of public sculpture, the game really distracts me from paying attention to the people who are nearby. I do make a point of being very careful about cars—I don’t cross roads or driveways with my head down at my phone—but I’m much less attentive to people nearby.

While I’m playing Ingress, an assassin would have no trouble getting to within arm’s reach completely unnoticed.

The other augmented reality game I play, Zombies Run!, isn’t as bad, because it doesn’t occupy my eyes. Even so, its fictional world colors my perspective of the real world.

I’m not alone in this. Mur Lafferty describes the immersive power of the game this way:

I was running to avoid a zombie chase . . . and I passed another runner going the opposite way. I nearly yelled that she was running right toward the zombies and she should turn and race away like me. But since I don’t want to be labeled the neighborhood crazy lady, I didn’t do this. I also feel a need, when I pass someone walking, to tell them that they should pick up the pace because of what is behind me . . .

An immersive game is fun. It is a great luxury to feel safe wandering about in public with my attention on a fictional world rather than the real one. I probably indulge myself a bit too much.

In this case, it would probably be wiser to take the advice of my action heroes, and pay attention.

Arrow, superheros, and gamifying exercise

We’ve enjoyed the TV series “Arrow” right from the start, and I’ve been particularly amused this season, when it appears that everyone (except the police captain, and maybe poor Felicity) is now a superhero (or supervillian): All of the Arrow’s team have what amounts to superpowers, Merlin has long had them, and now Thea is all trained up, and her sister Laurel is working on it.

In fact, in the Arrowverse, it seems that anybody can develop superpowers with a fairly short period of intense workouts.

Since back in season one, where one could already see this principle at work with Oliver, I was trying to convince Jackie that we ought to become superheros. She expressed a willingness, although I suspect she was just humoring me. I can’t speak for Jackie, but I so far do not seem to have superpowers. Probably my workouts have not been intense enough.

Anyway, the upshot is that I was an easy sell for Six to Start’s new Superhero Workout game, which was just released for Android. Like their “Zombies, Run!” game that I’ve mentioned several times, it gamifies exercise, and I’m a sucker for that. (Not to mention being a sucker for fictional characters getting into shape.)

So far I’ve just done the tutorial and part of the first storyline workout. But even in that little bit, I was already exercising more intensely than I have been. A few more weeks of this, and I’ll no doubt be besting multiple ninja warriors both unarmed and with swords.

Fleeing zombies on a treadmill

I went for a treadmill run with “Zombies, Run!” this morning. Despite it seeming like a particularly ineffective way to flee the zombies, it was by a wide margin the easiest 30-minute treadmill run I’ve ever had. I can usually just barely get myself to run 20 minutes on a treadmill.

I’ve gotten in the habit of setting any treadmill to an incline of 1%, because I find that matches my speed on the treadmill with my perceived level of effort. (That is, when I’m running at a 10-minute pace on the treadmill, it feels about like running at a 10-minute pace outdoors, if the treadmill is set at a 1% incline.)

This particular run came out at just over 31 minutes and just over 2.5 miles. I had turned off the GPS on the game and told it to use the accelerometer instead. At the default setting, it suggested that I’d gone 2.31 miles, so I bumped up the stride length by about 8%. Next run I’ll see if the treadmill distance and accelerometer distance aren’t just about the same.

I’ve been playing the game with the zombie chases turned off. That was mainly with the thought that it would increase replayability—I figured once I finished all the missions, I could go back and play them all again with zombie chases turned on for a fresh experience. Since I’m currently in no danger of running out of missions, I might turn them on for treadmill runs, to add a bit more variety.

Running, and maybe a little parkour

On many of my runs this spring, my ankles have been a little sensitive. I’m not sure why. It may be the last remnants of my ankle injury last summer. It may be that I haven’t been stretching my calves enough. It may be that I’ve been doing too many longish runs and not enough short ones. But whatever the cause, I’ve noticed that it seems much worse when the weather is cold.

Serious runners like to run in cool weather. Running generates a lot of heat. Even someone who runs as slowly as I do generates enough heat to keep warm (even in shorts and a t-shirt) in temps down into the 40s. But my ankles have tended to hurt after any run that I did in temps below the upper 50s. So for the past several weeks, I’ve been holding out for temps in the 60s to go for runs—and there hasn’t been much.

Happily our long, cold spring seems to be finally over. Since the end of winter, there have generally only been a few hours a week that were warm enough for me to run. As of today, it looks like we’re going to have 15 or 16 hours a day that will suit my purposes.

So, today I went out for a medium-ish length run, hoping that the weather and my schedule will let me get out for more runs nearly every day for the next while.

According to Zombies, Run! I went 3.11 miles in 36:18. It went great. No ankle pain (or foot, calf, knee, or hip pain). It was long enough for me to feel like I got in a real run, but short enough that (baring unexpected problems), I hope to be able to run tomorrow as well. And the day after that.

In related news, I’ve become interested in parkour. I’m not really interested in doing anything extreme in the way of climbing or leaping. It’s more that I’m hoping to see places to run differently—to see walls and railings and stairways and rocks as part of the course, rather than as obstacles. I haven’t done much so far, except step up the bodyweight parts of my resistance exercise, but I’ve started to practice jumping and landing where I mean to. (It turns out I have no explosive power at all. It’s really quite sad.) I’m also trying to recover my ability to do shoulder rolls. (Thirty years ago, when I was studying aikido, I could do a perfectly credible shoulder roll, come right to my feet, and then do the same roll on the other shoulder, all the way down the length of the dojo. Now I’m too timid to do a roll from a standing position, and even when I do it from my knee, it’s all clumsy and awkward. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good reason to be timid about doing them at a run.)

Storytelling (including running with zombies)

We went to a local storytelling event last night. There were about six storytellers, telling stories over the course of most of two hours (with a 15 minute break). They served beer and wine, but we’d been to Whiskey Wednesday, so we didn’t get further alcohol.

There’s an active community of storytellers in town. As a writer, I’m extremely aware of the difference between writing stories and telling stories, and I’m endlessly fascinated by storytelling. The stories I write in English wouldn’t lend themselves to telling (although they read aloud okay). But the theme of the events (monsters and dragons) reminded me of my first Esperanto story, which was about monsters, and it occurred to me that story would probably work for telling pretty well.

Somebody ought to get some Esperanto storytelling events going.

This event, which was in English, was pretty cool. They had a good number of children in attendance (drawn, I suppose, by the monsters and dragons theme). They’re talking about making a monthly thing out of it, and I just might make my way downtown to listen to stories on a regular basis if they do.

Speaking of storytelling, I’ve been continuing to use Zombies Run when I run, because I enjoy the storytelling aspects. (And I am enjoying hearing the story unfold, quite a bit. I’ve got quite a bit more to listen to, but I’m already looking forward to replaying season one. In particular, I’ve been playing so far without zombie chases, and I’m sure adding those will change things enough to make it extra-replayable.)

Not really related to the storytelling aspect, but interesting to me, is that using the game has had an impact on my training runs.

The game is set up to give you training runs about 30 minutes (or about 60 minutes). The story is divided into 5 or 6 audio clips that dramatize the story. Between each pair of clips, the game plays 1 song (or 2 songs) from your running playlist.

Early in the season like this, my fitness improves almost every run. (Especially because the weather often makes it impossible to run day after day, so I’m getting my recover days in.) Normally what happens is that I’ll find a distance I can run at my current level of fitness, and I’ll run that distance pretty often for a while, until I get fit enough to run further. (Later in the season I mix it up more with a weekly “long” run.)

In years past, at this point in the season, I’d be running my regular 2.2-mile loop for most of my runs, and my times would be gradually improving.

Now, though, all my runs are about 30 minutes. But, as my fitness improves, instead of finishing a standard length sooner, I’m running for a standard period of time and having to run further.

The last two runs there was still story to go when I got back, and I ended up having to run around the apartment complex. In order to be sure I’ll have finished the story by the time I’ve finished my run, I’m going to have to start running a longer route! (The game has a feature for making sure that a route that runs longer than an episode doesn’t leave you bereft. It’s called “radio mode” it goes on playing stuff from your playlist, still alternated with audio clips, but these audio clips don’t try to advance the story. They just provides some local color. So, if you finish a mission, but end up running another 10 minutes to get home, it switches seamlessly to those bits.)

Once the weather improves a tiny bit more, and I’m running more days per week, I’ll probably ease up just a bit on my all-zombie running, which will make it easier to mix up the distance a bit more.

Maybe I’ll also practice telling a story in Esperanto.

New perspective on running weather

I’ve always quit running during the winter. I found I could make myself get out and run in temps down to about 50 degrees, but when it got colder than that I didn’t enjoy the runs enough to make myself get out and run. I regretted this, because it meant that I did very little running for about six months of the year, but I didn’t regret it enough to get out and run in the cold.

This winter things have been a little different—the two phone-based games I’ve been playing have given me whole new motivations to get out.

I’ve walked 323 kilometers (200 miles!) playing Ingress, which I started playing back in September, almost all of that being walking that I wouldn’t have done without the game. That has stood me in good stead as a way to preserve fitness over the winter (although that includes walking that I did in the fall).

I experimented a bit with Ingress running, but found that although it was fine for the Ingress, it detracted from the run. I spent so much time pausing to play Ingress, that the average speed of my runs made them look like walks. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I may well do some more Ingress running this summer as a way to visit all my local portals without spending all day at it, but I missed the continuous effort of the run. I also missed having a measurable run, one that I could compare with an earlier run and get a sense of whether my fitness was ahead or behind of where it had been that year.

So, the Ingress hasn’t been getting me out to run, although it does get me out to walk.

However, I haven’t needed Ingress for running motivation, because I’ve got Zombies, Run!

It turns out, I don’t need temps above 50 to get me out to run, if I’m playing a Zombie mission. However, I’m still unwilling to run on ice and snow (because I’m not an idiot), and the cold, snowy winter, combined with the fact that people in Champaign-Urbana are the most un-neighborly people I’ve ever encountered when it comes to shoveling sidewalks, has meant that we’ve had conditions that kept me from running for the whole second half of January and most of February.

Today, though, the temperatures got up into the upper-30s, and got the snow and ice melting at speed. It was 36 degrees when I got back from lunch, and I’d seen that many sidewalks were finally clear, so I just changed into running clothes and headed right back out again.

I ran 3.16 miles in 37:11, for an 11:47 pace. (Zombies, Run! reports it as an 11:45 pace, probably due to rounding.)

Looking at my running log from last year, I see I didn’t do a 3-mile run until early May—so I’m a full two months ahead of the game. (Looking at the running log in more detail, I see that the issue wasn’t my aerobic fitness, it was the tendons in my knees that objected when I first ran 2.2 miles, and then again when I ran 2.4 miles. Last year I held my runs at those distances until my knees quit hurting. Being able to check this sort of thing is just what I’m talking about, when I complain about Ingress running not producing measurable, comparable runs. Happily, my knees felt fine today, probably because of all the walking.)

Best of all, the forecast is for highs above freezing every day for as far as the eye can see.

Now that I have my phone-based running games, all I ask is that the sidewalks be clear of ice and snow—and highs above freezing will take care of that.

After a brief lull as I began integrating already written text into my novel, things have picked up again, and the novel progresses apace.

Modest success with new daily routine, plus zombies

I’ve been waiting to post about how successful my new daily routine has been until I’ve had at least one day where I actually followed it in each particular, and today was that day.

In fact, just aiming at my new routine has been enough to increase my productivity quite a bit. I’ve had at least one writing session nearly every day, and I’ve gotten some sort of exercise nearly every day, and most days have had plenty of both.

So, the new daily routine has been at least a modest success so far.

Today:

  • I wrote early.
  • I went to the Fitness Center and lifted weights.
  • I came back and wrote some more.
  • I had a light lunch.
  • I went out and experimented with combining Zombies, Run! and Ingress. (It seemed to work okay, as long as I paused Zombies before trying to Ingress.)
  • I came back home and put a final polish on a Wise Bread post I’d written a few days ago, then shared it with the editors.

Having accomplished all that stuff, figure I’m free to do whatever I want for the rest of the day.

By the way, here’s my zombie-ingress outing as tracked by Zombies, Run. I went 3.61 km (which works out to 2.24 miles) in 1:28:22. That would be a very slow run, but it was fine for a walk where I was spent many minutes standing around at portals. (I left the program in kilometers rather than miles, only because Ingress does everything in kilometers. I’ll probably change it, though. I think in miles when I run.)