Category Archives: Motivation

Cell Phone Lure

Our smartphones distract us, even if they are not turned on, which decreases our ability to concentrate.

This is certainly something that instructors in both school and professional training classrooms have to deal with. The mere presence of your cell phone makes you stupider by distracting you with the lure of potential social connection.

It’s tough because you can’t, at least in many professional settings, tell participants they can’t bring their phones with them. It would be better anyway, perhaps, to help people understand the effect and develop metacognitive strategies to focus. But how?


Wellness: Return on Investment

I was challenged recently about whether the food and breaks at our internal learning conferences are conducive to learning from an energy management standpoint.

That challenge seems reasonable. No matter whether a course is well- or poorly-designed, the physical state and alertness of learners should impact learning. So, I’m reading about it.

One incidental thing that was interesting to read: apparently wellness programs at work return on average $5.50 on every dollar. That’s impressive, and appears to be from a pretty good meta-analysis*. The building my firm is in just installed a free gym downstairs, and I get a lot of use out of it; I hope I earn my firm back that kind of return for whatever they are paying.

*Frustratingly, the meta-analysis is behind a huge paywall. I could only find a brief, so it is hard to know what all the assumptions and limitations are.

Not Happy About the Happiness Advantage

I started two books at pretty much the same time, both about improving performance. The thesis of Peak is that deliberate practice is the path to success. The thesis of The Happiness Advantage is that happiness is the path to success. The books aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Maybe both are important components.

Unfortunately, only one of the books succeeded in building a good case. Peak did a nice job of laying out the research base for its conclusions and pointing out the limitations of that research base. I gave up on The Happiness Advantage a third of the way through.

The example in the book that finally threw me off the edge was a study that the author pointed to that demonstrated the power of mind over body. The dramatic example he cites is a study from Japan where researchers rubbed poison ivy on one arm of subjects and fake poison ivy on the other but told subjects the opposite. Subjects tended to physically react to the fake poison ivy and not the real poison ivy.

That’s really fascinating, and my first reaction is a need to learn more. The source was a New York Times article from the late 90s. The Times article itself gave no source. A search on Google Scholar produced no results.

To be clear, the study may exist and the effect may be true (though I doubt it). But author Shawn Achor, an academic from Harvard, failed to cite an original source, which means at best he was sloppy, and at worst he’s taking the Times article at face value without any effort to view it critically. What was the methodology? Has it been replicated?

Sloppy or lazy, he lost my trust, so it was no longer worth reading.


In recent years, grit has been upheld as the key factor in educational success.

I found this recent David Brooks commentary interesting and insightful.

Grit has been upheld as the most important attribute for success in our educational system. Grit is what helps you endure when you lack passion for a task. The fact that grit is so important to academic success, then, says a lot about our ability, or lack of ability, to spark passion and curiosity in schools the way we currently design them.

Distracted Learning Index

For fun at one of our internal conferences last week I started measuring how many learners in the course were visibly displaying non-course information on a device–in other words, how many participants were multitasking. I initially called this measure the partial-tasking index, but it seems silly to invent another word for multitasking, even if that word is misleading because it implies success doing more than one thing at a time, which is very difficult to do unless the multitasker has achieved automaticity in one of the tasks. One of my colleagues pointed out a parallel to distracted driving, suggesting there should be a distracted learning index.

I took two readings per class of the percentage of multitaskers, then average the two scores. The best multitasking about I saw for a class was 3%. The worst score was 29%.

I should acknowledge here that the correlation between learning and a good distracted learning index score is probably pretty low. Just because learners are not interacting with a device doesn’t mean they are learning. On the other hand, a poor index score probably is indicative of a problem, particularly if the score gets worse during the class. It’s just a data point, an easy one to gather that is interesting to compare against other courses.

One of my fears of taking this measurement at all is that it could be misinterpreted as a call to eliminate connected technology in the classroom (if there are no distractions, learners will be forced to pay attention). It is true that courses at this conference that had electronic participant materials had, on average, more multitasking. However, some courses with electronic materials scored well on the index, so a lack of laptops doesn’t guarantee engagement, particularly since everyone at the conference has a little computer in their pockets that they can pull out whenever they are bored. Besides, technology-enhanced materials have too much upside for me to advocate a return to paper. Also, it wasn’t a fair comparison because the courses with no electronic participant guides were more often the ones with professional keynote-level speakers.

Another interesting point in the data is that large courses (>100 participants) had similar scores on average as small courses (around 30 participants). This is counterintuitive as I’d expect the larger classes to offer a kind anonymity that mighty encourage multitasking. Again, though, this might be an apples-to-oranges comparison as the larger classes tended to feature professional speakers.

Emotion as a Leadership Tool

David Rock makes an interesting observation about the use of energy and emotion and intensity in leadership. He writes:

Studies show that the strongest emotion in a team can ripple out and drive everyone to resonate with the same emotion, without anyone consciously knowing this is happening. The strong emotion gets attention, and what people pay attention to will activate their mirror neurons. In a similar way, the boss’s emotions can have a flow-on effect to others, since people pay so much attention to the boss.

That makes intuitive sense and raises the question of how to channel this positively in the meeting room, the classroom, or wherever, as it could cut both ways. Frustration, anger, optimism, and excitement all can ripple out just as easily.

Continuous Partial Attention

David Rock in Your Brain at Work briefly discusses an elegant conceptualization of a phenomenon all around us: continuous partial attention.

To quote Rock:

Despite thirty years of consistent findings about dual-task interference, many people still try to do several things at once. Workers of the world have been told to multitask for years. Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft, coined the term continuous partial attention in 1998. It’s what happens when people’s focus is split, continuously. The effect is constant and intense mental exhaustion. As Stone explains it, “To pay continuous partial attention is to keep a top-level item in focus, and constantly scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.”

(I’ve never read a book before in which a Rock cites a Stone.)

Stone coined this term a decade before smartphones–tools that clearly must exacerbate the phenomenon.

In classrooms, instructors get understandably frustrated when learners engage with devices while listening. Learners do this for a number of reasons. They overestimate their ability to multitask. They overestimate their understanding of the course content (Dunning-Kruger effect). They are bored and use it, like doodling, as a way to focus. Sometimes they make an informed choice about priorities. And so forth. Stone would add another: a nagging feeling that something more interesting might be happening. Better check! Better keep scanning for what’s going on.

Sure, at some level this is a design problem–keep the instruction relevant and interactive and responsive and learners won’t have free cognitive cycles for distraction. But instructional designers don’t get to touch every piece of instruction, not by a long shot, and ID is not a perfect science anyway (and typically working under resource-constrained conditions), so the question becomes: how do we help learners achieve the metacognitive discipline to eschew continuous partial attention?