Vivek Haldar

The Contours of My Attention

Lately I’ve felt lost when in front of the computer. I feel like every time I turn to the screen, I’m at the bottom of a deep ravine and the sky is blocked off but for a thin strip between its high walls. I have to claw my way back to the top to see the lay of the land, and where I am located on it.

What was I doing? What do I need to do next? These are the most important questions when I’m working. And modern interfaces make it easy to lose track of them when I’m in the thick of it, and downright hard to answer them when I try to come back after a break, or an interruption.

The contours of my attention are varied and varying. They have peaks and valleys and plateaus. They are changing, rising and falling. Some things are central, some peripheral. Some things are important, some urgent, and some whimsical. Some peripheral things might be important. Some whimsical things might become central.

The modern UI does not know about the contours of my attention. It is a vast plain, with no distinguishing marks.

(Note that this is a different problem than that of being distracted, and being on a device where distraction is so easy. Not that I don’t suffer from that problem too but that’s a whole different story.)

I’ve taken to going analog. Writing things down. I got a couple of nice fountain pens that lightly tickle my nostalgia bone and that make me enjoy the sensual pleasure of putting wet ink on smooth paper. Underlines. Doodles. Boxes. Large writing. Small writing. They all tell a story. They all anchor thought, and recollect it.

Rather than the keyboard driving, I let the paper drive. I write tasks and designs and box and arrow diagrams. Then I go do one little thing on the computer. Then I come back to the paper. And so on. This is very similar to the idea of having an analog desk and a digital desk.

This is the next challenge in designing UIs: making them recognize and adjust to the contours of my attention.