David Levy in USA Today: Prof tackles tech distractions one student at a time

A college course that starts with 15 minutes of doing absolutely nothing would seem like stiff competition for Basket Weaving 101 as a credit filler.

And yet for harried students in the throes of the tech age, that silent intro has proven to be the toughest part of professor David Levy's "Information and Contemplation," a University of Washington class whose popularity and reputation is growing.

"They start the course rushed and with tight shoulders, but my argument is that it's precisely for the sake of productivity that we need a greater connection with ourselves and our tech tools," says Levy, a former Silicon Valley denizen who teaches out of the Information School's Mary Gates Hall, honoring the mother of tech, godfather Bill.

"This isn't about saying technology is bad," says Levy, who grants himself a "tech Sabbath" every Saturday. "It's about a having a deeper conversation and being mindful of limits, about asking yourself, 'How do I want to live?' "

Each winter, Levy's course invites students to open class with 15 minutes of silent meditation, followed by a range of assignments that include responding to e-mail — and only e-mail, dubbed mono-tasking — for 20 minutes straight as well as filming your screen and yourself while surfing the Web, via software called Camtasia, to check posture and body language.

Junior journalism major Lily Katz, 21, didn't like what she saw.

"I was switching tasks mindlessly, from e-mail to Facebook and back," Katz says. "I thought, 'Whoa, I'm wasting a lot of time.' Now I'm more self-aware."

The term is mindfulness, and in some quarters it's seen as a critical antidote to technology's growing assault on our time and attention.

Though hardly a new concept — Buddhists have practiced the art of focusing on the moment for millennia — staying on track in the face of calls, e-mails, social media, news alerts and other distractions could be the killer app for a killer life.

"Things like food and alcohol are distractions, but tech is so ubiquitous it's now the distraction of choice," says Janice Marturano, founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, which helps company leaders establish a productive corporate culture.

"Tech is supposed to bring us together, but instead often it prevents us from having a good conversation or enjoying a walk with a friend," she says. "The bottom line is, you need to be present for your life or you might miss it."

Tech giant Google, whose full-service campus gives employees little incentive to leave work, has shown an awareness of the pressing problem and offers a course called "Search Inside Yourself" that provides tips on training the mind to focus.

Every building on the General Mills campus in Minneapolis contains a meditation room, and Army officials have even begun teaching soldiers meditation techniques to cope with combat-related stress.

In Europe, the issue of tech distraction has risen to the highest levels of government. French labor union and corporate officials have agreed on an accord, which awaits lawmaker review, that obliges workers to "disconnect from remote communications tools" for 11 consecutive hours each day. Companies would decide on their own which window of time to shut down e-mail servers.

As easy as it may be to view this as a chance to take pot shots at leisure-focused French culture — where the 35-hour workweek still reigns supreme — the move underscores mounting concern that a distracted populace is a less productive one.

Not to mention detached: Nowhere is the battle for attention more fierce than on the literal home front, where gadget-obsessed parents and kids alike are in a daily struggle to communicate the old-fashioned way, not Facebook update to Facebook update but face to face.

"Thanks to technology, I can be in my kitchen and be at work, which just means it's very important that I be able to set boundaries that respect our family life," says Janell Burley Hofmann, a mother of five and author of the book, out May 6, iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up.

Burley says she's a frequent guest speaker at high schools, and is often approached by students who "are just craving their parents' focus." Her advice ranges from no-tech dinners to having children resist "Googling a question for a quick answer and instead just talk things over together. It's a small thing, but can make a huge impact."

The University of Washington's Levy doesn't have kids, but he has all the empirical data he needs from his students.

"I feel for this generation; they just seem incredibly busy and stressed," says Levy, who was a researcher at the fabled Xerox PARC lab in Silicon Valley throughout the '90s. "It's that very American view that we all should be working all the time, an intensification of our more-faster-better industrial era."

He acknowledges that his students "are a self-selecting group who want to better understand their relationship with technology," but he has a sense his course is fast moving from quirky outlier to a subject that now needs little introduction.

"When I first started talking about this topic years ago, I said, 'Things are getting faster,' and people would immediately push back and say 'Prove it,' " he says. "Now, no one says that anymore."

For journalism major Katz, one revealing moment came after a self-imposed "media fast" for a day. "I didn't wake up on time, because I didn't have my phone as an alarm, but the rest of the day was amazing," she says. "I went for a walk and actually noticed the buildings and the nature around me."

Information School graduate student Ceradwen Bacon, 30, says she was drawn to Levy's course because friends who had taken it "described his classroom as a calming place to be." But soon she learned she could export that oasis of tech-free bliss.

"With the Internet, your attention is the prize, and that led me to be far more aware of how I was spending my time online," she says, describing how she then moved her desktop computer away from a central position and minimized the notifications that constantly buzzed her phone.

Says the newly mindful Bacon: "My big aha moment was that, sure, tech is everywhere, but I have control."

USA TODAY's "Letter From" series spotlights people and issues making news across the nation.

Story by Marco della Cava, USA Today, April 20, 2014