Brief Thoughts on The Science of Distractions

What is our experience of attention and distraction really like? It’s a deceptively simple question we feel like we know what distraction is until we stop to think about it harder. The topic itself delves into metacognition, of trying to be aware of our own thought processes.

Some research attempts to answer this question from a scientific approach. From Wired: “Here’s scientific proof your brain was designed to be distracted”, there is a suggestion from some research at Berkeley and Princeton that it might be an ebb and flow experience:

“Researchers have found that rather than being laser-like, attention is actually more akin to a spotlight that continually dims and comes back on again … For instance, while it may seem that you are continuously focusing on reading this article, the reality is that youʼre zooming in and out of attention up to four times per second.”

If we accept this idea, then the experience of attention is more like quick bursts rather than long sustained focus and that these different states of mind are in fact literally different brain states as well. For those that are interested, here’s a link to the study cited above: “A Dynamic Interplay within the Frontoparietal Network Underlies Rhythmic Spatial Attention.”

From what we do know now about the neuroscience of distraction, it seems that we are always on some level a little bit distracted. Some part of our brain is constantly scanning our environment for novel stimuli, even when it does seem to us that we are solely focused on the task that we are concentrating on. This isn’t a failing of our attention spans, so much as it is a feature of biology, as Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen cover in-depth in their fascinating book: The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World

On a related note is this brief article from Scientific American which mentions some other research that takes a different approach, of attention through the suppression of distraction suggesting that maybe we have some volitional control over what and how we get distracted: “How the Brain Ignores Distractions”


Speaking at the Hay Festival 2019: Reading in an Age of Digital Distraction

Exciting news: I’ll be speaking at one of the coolest literary festivals in the world this year, and am extremely excited to be a part. It is a wonderful event running from May 23 through June 2 this year, taking place in Hay-on-Wye. Here’s a link (or click on the image above) for the official press release about the Hay Festival from the University of Cambridge. I’ll be speaking about reading in an age of digital distractions and will be participating with several other very interesting speakers from the University.

Here’s a link to the just released full schedule, which is full of many literary luminaries. Very exciting — and more details coming soon! I’ll share a few sneak preview details here and on Twitter in the lead-up to my talk on May 31st.

You can book tickets to the Hay Festival event here. If you’re coming, please do get in touch — looking forward to seeing you there!

On how to manage a non-traditional path to Cambridge

I did a new blog post with the nice folks over at the Cambridge Careers Blog! Make sure to visit them for more interesting perspectives and stories. In this post, I reflect a bit upon some of the things I’ve done over the past decade, and how they led me to what I’m currently doing at Cambridge. 

Currently, I’m working to finish my PhD on reading, digital distractions, and social media behaviour.

I hadn’t necessarily always thought of myself as the type of person who would pursue a PhD. But now that I’m at Cambridge as part of the Faculty of Education, I cannot honestly imagine being anywhere else.

Photo: Cliff Redeker

I certainly didn’t take a straightforward path to the PhD: having worked first in the tech industry at Google in Mountain View, California where I helped to run the Authors@Google program (think of it as Google’s version of TED talks); then as a director of nonprofit education, a brief stint in the chaotic startup world in San Francisco, followed by working at Stanford University — before coming to Cambridge. This post is a bit of a reflection as well as a chance to share some of things that I found myself wondering about and hopefully will offer you some ways of working toward answers that might fit your own unique situation.

What will the transition be like from the workplace back to academia?

For me, there was definitely an adjustment period. Whenever you change workplaces or industries, the pace of work, scale of work, modes of communication and flow of information are different enough to give most of us some degree of culture shock. But don’t worry, even just being aware of and prepared for culture shock can be helpful in knowing that it will pass.

The Faculty of Education is not unlike a lot of spaces you’ll find when navigating the University of Cambridge. There are lots of groups, subgroups, administrative mazes to navigate, and interesting people to talk to and learn from, that it can hard to navigate at first. In fact, one of the reasons we created the FERSA Cambridge Research Blog — which now has reached over 25,000 visitors across 150 different countries — was a way to make such a large community feel like a smaller, more accessible one.

One of the most wonderful things about being in a university environment is how valuable perspectives can be gained from sharing with those outside of your normal areas of interest. Not only does the FERSA blog give researchers a chance to share their experience with others across disciplines and research fields, but we have always intended for it to be a peek inside the Black Box of the life as a university researcher — so that the rest of the world can see what we do, how we do it, and what things we find helpful along the way.

I want to do something completely different than what I’ve done in the past. Is changing directions OK?

We are much more than just the sum of our degrees, no matter what we did. I completed my M.A. and B.A. in English Literature (and Rhetoric) and for the longest time had thought of myself as mostly a humanities person. My focus gradually shifted to books as physical objects and now to the relation of print and digital reading behaviors that has led me into interesting social science fields I hadn’t considered even a few years ago. The process of applying for various graduate programs became an exercise in thinking about different possible versions of my self: could I see myself as this kind of researcher, or that kind of scholar?

For those of us coming from different careers, change can be a bit scary and prompt the occasional existential wondering (who am I now? what is my purpose?) but these kinds of questions also offer us a rare, valuable occasion to learn more about ourselves.

Will my previous background make me a fit here?

These kinds of questions were constantly on my mind during the application process. What I realized along the way, is that it can be helpful to invert the question: how will this place be a good mutual fit for what you want to do, and will it fit your background and the unique experience that you bring?

One of the virtues of having a slightly less usual kind of career path is that it has let me experience cultures, environments, and people of all kinds. One thing I’ve learned during the past decade of work is that the people that you spend the most time around and interacting with can have a great influence on your experience in work or study. Make sure to find the people that help you learn, or can help you learn more about yourself.

Back to the original question — fitting in is a real thing we all have to deal with at some point, in some way or other. Imposter Syndrome is not something to shy away from, but realizing it is ok to have those doubts can be surprisingly helpful, as unintuitive as that may sound. What is also helpful is talking to people, all kinds of people, and especially those that are unlike you at all. Why? Serendipity can be a wonderful thing, and those unexpected connections and insights from not always knowing what it is you are looking for can take you to places you never imagined. The nature of my research focus in digital distractions and social media have taken me to places within the University I had never known existed and that has been one of the most rewarding parts of my time here.

Live-blogging: Academics as social media curators

One of the benefits to using social media as an academic and researcher can be taking part in a larger, shared conversation. Especially when we are first dipping our toes into such a vast ocean of online content, it can be extremely helpful to have some helpful role models and guides to show us the way.

During this session of #SocialMediaPhD, our experts Mark Carrigan, Inger Mewburn (Thesis Whisperer) and Pat Thomson (patter) shared some of the tools and methods that work for them:

One of the collective themes throughout this session was how Mark, Inger, and Pat are mindful of their audiences and use their social media accounts as a means of content curation — both for their own work and interests, as well as what their audiences might be interested in reading and sharing.

For the Thesis Whisperer, perhaps social media can be thought of as a radio broadcast — you’ll reach different listeners/users at different times while they dip in out and of being online, while they are doing different things:

When there are myriad options of tools to use, how do we decide what to be using for our own everyday social media use? Usability, the ability to link across different accounts and services, and overall user-friendliness can be important factors to consider. As with many things online, things can change quickly (for example, one of my favorite 3rd party Twitter apps can stop being useful practically overnight).

It can be quite a chore to keep abreast of what’s new while also learning about more tried and true methods for content curation. Having a spirit of exploration and experimentation can help:

Flipboard is one example of a great, free, cross-platform app that allows you to cull a variety of online sources of information into a slick, magazine-style reading experience.

(And you can follow the Thesis Whisperer on Flipboard)


Sometimes this can also mean using other platforms that we know well, in creative new ways. I think a few of us were intrigued about Pat Thomson’s use of Pinterest as a research tool (you can follow Pat Thomson on Pinterest here)!

Facebook groups, both open and private groups, can be another useful resource for scholarly communities. Such groups are particularly useful as online forums and you’ll frequently find questions and discussion put forth to the hive mind:

Let’s face it: social media can unfortunately be a nasty, unpleasant environment from time to time. There are also communities (just a few examples through hashtags that you can visit: #WIASN, #PhDChat, #ECRChat), which can be powerful sources of inspiration and support for academics and people of all kinds.

And finally, be sure to check out Julia Hayes‘ wonderful live-drawing which captured these topics!

Live-blogging: Social Media and Doing a PhD — Problems and Opportunities

It was quite a busy day at the University of Birmingham with our #SocialMediaPhD workshop. It can be helpful after a day full of information and ideas to commit some things to paper to digest later.

This photo gallery recounts our group activity “Social media and doing a PhD: problems and opportunities.”

As all of the pens, post-it notes, Apple Pencils, and coffee mugs nestled into the corners of the photos indicate, it can be a lot of work to do some group brainstorming and reflect.

Each poster is grouped into three columns:

  • What we learned
  • How to use it
  • What we’re still wondering about (perhaps useful for a future workshop?)

Take a look for yourself to see what our groups shared — and of course feel free to add any suggestions or questions you might have as well.

Some of the quick highlights:

[FinalTilesGallery id=’2′]

Live-blogging: Thesis Whisperer, Academic blogging, and social media

Our next speaker is Inger Mewburn, author of the popular Thesis Whisperer blog.

Echoing Mark Carrigan’s earlier point today, it’s ok to take a less-than-straightforward path to finding a blog approach that works for you personally. In fact, perhaps the key to a successful academic blog includes half-starts and do-overs? After all, different approaches and blog experiments can give you valuable information about what works, and what does not. For Inger, this meant experimenting with seven different blog iterations before settling on The Thesis Whisperer.

The Thesis Whisperer shares her 3 Basic Rules of Blogging: 

  1. Write something that you want to read (and that other people will want to read).
  2. Write something that instructs, informs, and entertains: be useful.
  3. Be regular.

To that last point, Inger posts every Wednesday. Of course, everyone will have to determine what kind of blogging schedule can work for them. Inger experimented with posting twice a week, but keep in mind that such a schedule can be hard and time intensive when you’re spending a good amount of time on each post that you write.

It’s also important to know your audience. Why do some blog posts do better than others? Where do the ebbs and flows in blog traffic come from? Sometimes you might just know that a post will do well, but the traffic turns out a bit underwhelming. Understanding your audience behavior can be important to find when your readers are engaging with you. For example, Facebook data can provide useful, granular data about your blog audiences. Some platforms might work better than others, depending on your content and your audiences — so try multiple channels to see where your audience is coming from.

What motivates blog posts? For Inger, some of the best posts seem to be inspired from times when she might be sad, or angry. And such emotions can be productive, and cathartic — a good deal of creative energy can come from a negative place that can in turn be channeled into a positive outcome through blogging. Another powerful motivation can stem from a feeling to want to help others through sharing and exploring such experiences that we encounter in academia in our day to day lives.

Along similar lines to patter’s thoughts earlier today on the function of a blog — the Thesis Whisperer blog can function as a scrapbook, as a gateway to other things, and as a shared bookmarks resource for herself and for others.

The Thesis Whisperer is full of wonderfully helpful blog posts and topics. To that end, a blog can also be used as a teaching resource, for current students and classes (see for example the Learn From The Whisperer sidebar on the right).

Another helpful practice for those of us prone to typos — consider running everything through Grammarly before posting. I just did it on this post and caught two small ones!

If you are committed to doing your own academic blogging, put some thought into your content strategy. Inger, for example, alternates between her own self-authored posts and guests posts (tip: the waitlist to post with Thesis Whisperer can be long!). To post regularly on your blog, be sure to have content or at least ideas for content lined up — for example, Inger has about one year of blog post content ready for posting.

Omnifocus, the task management app extraordinaire, can be useful for managing your workflow in many ways — including for blog posts. (Be sure to check out the great Thesis Whisperer post on this: Super charged academic productivity?)

How much time can be devoted to your blog? The Thesis Whisperer shares the exact data, for those of us that are interested:

77 hours, 32 minutes* on the blog this year as of 11:30am this morning, which works out to 1.48 hours per week.

Note: keep in mind that she is a very fast writer. But that speed has taken years of practice — whereas a blog post might have taken four hours while she was starting out, that same process takes her an hour now.

*For anyone interested in learning about your own amount of time spent online, check out the Mac app, Timing and be sure to check out Thesis Whisperer post: The Academic FitBit 


Live-blogging: Mapping your social media footprint

From today’s Social Media and Doing a PhD workshop: this photo gallery chronicles our group activity “Mapping your social media footprint”,  a self-audit of our social media use frequency, as well as our feelings about such use.

Images represent each groups 4-part grid:


Far Left = Visitor (I rarely or never use this)

Far Right = Resident (I frequently use this, or “live” on this platform)


Upper: Most positive (I feel positive about using this)

Lower: Most negative (I feel negative about using this)

[FinalTilesGallery id=’1′]

Live-blogging: Pat Thomson, Academic blogging, and social media

Our second speaker is Pat Thomson (patter), Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham.

For those of us that are interested in academic blogging, a blog can represent a significant part of our online scholarly identity. Consider that — whether we are aware of it or not — we are already online in different forms, and a blog certainly represents one way to manage the “various bits of you” that are floating around online without your necessarily being at the whim of Google search results:

For Pat, her immensely helpful blog enables her to present a particular version of her scholarly work and interests online. In addition, the patter weekly blog posts can be an incredibly powerful means of extending her teaching practice of academic writing to a wider audience beyond the classroom. And as she points out, those blog posts represent not just her teaching, but sharing her our own scholarly practice.

How much time does it take to craft such information-rich blog posts, every week? For Pat Thomson, Patter is a “Sunday morning job,” with two-three hours on Sunday mornings devoted to her extensive backlog of potential blog post ideas, or expanding upon fragments of writing that she writes along the way in her everyday work.

Blogs also can be used for a number of purposes beyond personal blogging projects. Take for example, the TALE Project:


A blog such as this can be an invaluable means of connecting with funding organizations and other stakeholders during the course of research projects. A blog can serve as a means of communication in ways that Twitter and other platforms may not be able to achieve. Project blogs can help your project reach different groups, which in turn can lead to different, valuable forms of engagement.

A blog such as the TALE Project site (see images above) can be used as a place to share progress on a project and a means of chronicling the research progress itself. Or even think of it as an alternative to keeping your thought process just on a word document on your computer, but as a means to share that progress online.

Do you have stories or other examples of how you use your blog or website to disseminate and share your work? Please feel free to share either here or on Twitter!

Tyler Shores

Pat Thomson

Live-blogging: Mark Carrigan and Academic blogging and social media

Starting off today is Mark Carrigan, digital sociologist at the University of Cambridge and The Sociological Review Foundation.

Mark discussed some of the history leading up to his own, very successful, blog. Sometimes personal blogs can take a few iterations before we’re able to settle upon one that clicks (and gets clicks). For Mark, his current WordPress-powered blog began as an online receptacle for his thoughts, which slowly transitioned into a place to share thoughts on his PhD experience, and eventually becoming a research blog.

What is a research blog? For Mark, the blog became a tool for the thinking process. The blog in this way functions as a sort of publicly visible playground of the mind — where ideas are played with, explored, and even tested as prospective projects. During the process of sharing, linking, researching through his blog, Mark often found that disparate ideas became larger, connected ideas or incorporated into larger bodies of work.

A blog in this way functions along the same lines as a digital commonplace, a form of digital marginalia that you use a way to think while working, reading, and researching. A blog can also potentially represent a measure of accountability — any ideas-in-progress are out there, and can attract feedback that can potentially be worked with later.

For Mark, a blog is a “place for developing ideas, thinking out loud and collecting things I might need later.”

Another option, either alongside or as an alternative to WordPress, is How might audiences vary from WordPress or It depends. Curating your content and topics via tags (see image on the right for Mark’s organization scheme) can influence the kinds of audiences you reach.

On the one hand, can potentially have a built-in audience for the topics that you write and think about, which can in turn lead to different traffic and different audiences than perhaps a WordPress blog, where audience growth can happen more slowly or more organically. Mark posits that perhaps might be more conducive for longer form pieces of writing (I’m inclined to agree), which might lead to longer, more sustained forms of audience engagement.

What sorts of things have worked (or not worked) for you? Any questions for Mark on this topic? Feel free to get in touch right now!