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The day I brought my knitting to the boardroom

To survive meetings, I used digital distractions — until I found the ultimate analog cure

By Alexandra Samuel

“Alex, what do you think?”

I looked up, startled, and surveyed the men who were staring at me expectantly. Once again, I was That Person: The fidgeter, too restless to sit still at an all-day business meeting. The distracter, disrupting my colleagues’ focus with my own relentless need for multitasking. The lone woman in a boardroom full of men. Which is why I suddenly felt acutely conscious of the distraction in my lap: a ball of yarn, two knitting needles, and a half-knitted scarf.

Thankfully, I have a lot of practice bringing unwelcome distractions to the conference table. I was the first person in college to carry a “portable” computer to class — a 20-pound Zenith Supersport that practically dislocated my shoulder with its weight. A decade later, I carried a much lighter Mac Powerbook to grad school seminars and professional conferences, where I found that the clicking of the keyboard was enough to earn me the side eye.

Maybe that should have taught me to be careful about what to carry into the sanctuary of a conference or meeting room, but as I built my career in technology research and development, my early adopter compulsion — not to mention my twitchiness — made me a chronic, unwelcome trailblazer. Before the iPhone was a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, I had a Treo, an early smartphone that allowed me to check email during meetings, at a time when that was still considered the height of discourtesy. Before smartphones became ubiquitous, I drew glares by live tweeting workshops and creeped people out by coming to meetings with my trial version of Google Glass. When the backlash began, and managers started running device-free meetings, I not only insisted on retaining my laptop habit — I made fun of my colleagues for taking notes on paper.

Over all those years of tech-enabled multitasking, I braved collegial resentment in the name of productivity, and risked professional alienation in order to avoid the ultimate nightmare — having to give a meeting my full and undivided attention. A 30-minute client meeting with genuine back-and-forth: that I could handle. An hour-long Powerpoint presentation was tolerable, if useless. A half-day workshop, where participants were asked to leave their devices behind so we could engage in “meaningful presence”? It’s time to amend the Geneva Convention, because that is torture.

I was so incapable of mono-tasking that I needed to play puzzle games while watching TV. That’s when I decided to take up a more productive hobby: knitting.

While I grew steadily more dependent on digital distraction, the rest of the world started to poke holes in the very idea of multitasking. “Multitasking is counterproductive,” a 2001 headline blared, reporting on an early study that showed the cognitive cost of alternating tasks. It was an early harbinger of what would become a torrent of research and media coverage, aimed at shattering the delusion that we can check incoming tweets or emails without compromising the quality of our offline attention. A Time feature told me that “[f]or nearly all people, in nearly all situations, multitasking is impossible.” Entrepreneur magazine put a price tag on the problem, recently claiming that the “global cost of multitasking was $450 billion per year from lost productivity.” One widely circulated study — soon debunked — claimed that the internet itself had shortened my attention span to that of a goldfish.

Whatever animal I resembled, I still had a problem: my attention span was insufficient to the job of keeping me engrossed in a hour-long meeting about the relative merits of weekly vs daily email marketing campaigns. Even after-hours, I was so incapable of mono-tasking that I needed to play puzzle games to keep myself from getting restless while watching TV. When I realized I was wasting hours a day on Words with Friends or Threes, I decided it was time to take up a more productive hobby: knitting.

I’ve always been a little bit crafty, as long as I stick to crafts that don’t require much in the way of artistic ability or eye-hand coordination. And I liked the idea of being able to knit my own laptop case, or a pair of smartphone-friendly mittens, or maybe even a Tetris scarf. Heck, if I got really good, I might even knit things that were entirely unrelated to technology!

I was a little daunted by the memory of past failures. I’d tried knitting intermittently over the years, beginning at age 13 and throughout my 20s and 30s; I’d never made it further than a few misshapen rows before I gave up in discouragement. But something exciting had happened in the intervening years: the internet! Between YouTube videos, blog post tutorials, and online knitting communities, I now had all the guidance I needed to get underway, and to get past each successive stumbling block.

At first, knitting was strictly an at-home activity: something to keep my hands busy while I watched TV, too messy and analog for me to consider practicing in public. As my stitches evened out and my technique grew more intuitive, however, I began to flaunt my yarn in low-risk environments. I carried a discreet knitting bag to the coffee shop where I do most of my writing, and discovered that tackling a row or two was the perfect way to reboot my brain whenever I felt blocked. I sought out simple patterns I could handle in the dark, and added knitting to the guilty pleasure of superhero movies. I carried a few hefty skeins onto a transcontinental flight, and discovered that a plane travels much more quickly from coast to coast if you use the time to knit an entire scarf.

But I was still shy about producing my yarn and needles in the very settings where I needed them most: the conferences, workshops, and client meetings that left me squirming if I put away my smartphone. Knitting in Serious Business Settings felt like a needless provocation, even for me — and a particular risk, given the challenges of being a woman in the corporate world. Staring at your smartphone is a universal activity; knitting, by contrast, is profoundly gendered. Its very suitability for multitasking is wrapped up in traditional roles: in her article, “Knitting as Dissent,” fashion writer and lecturer Tove Hermanson wrote that “knitting has always been women’s work because it was an activity compatible with breastfeeding and childcare in that it could be interrupted and resumed easily.”

Then I found myself at a conference on — of all things — the perils of digital distraction. Tweeting my way through that (or even thumbing through my smartphone, as I do in most meetings) felt like an even more conspicuous deviation. But mono-tasking felt like an impossibility. So I took a deep breath, reached into my bag, and produced my work in progress. Some of my fellow conference-goers gave my knitting a few curious glances, but what were they going to say? It was a conversation about the perils of digital distraction, not analog crafting.

The experience was a watershed. For the first time in years, I was able to absorb talk after talk, and presentation after presentation — even if I wasn’t taking notes or tweeting the proceedings. I was able to sit still(ish), lulled by the rhythm of my own needles. I even went hours without looking at my phone, because the combination of manual activity and intellectual absorption kept me fully engaged.

Everything I read about knitting, meanwhile, bolstered my belief that I had finally found a healthy form of multitasking. If headlines warned of shrinking attention spans in the digital age, a study of older people at risk for dementia found that knitting actually reduced the risks of cognitive decline. A survey of more than 3,500 knitters found that knitting actually made people feel calm, giving me some hope that I might eventually become the kind of person who can just sit still for the length of a meeting. And a study of a knitting guild in my own backyard revealed that many knitters see their hobby “as a means to focus in meetings, during conversations, or while listening to music or watching TV.”

Knitting is undergoing a resurgence right now, which has come with an effort to modernize the craft’s old-fashioned image, and shed some cultural baggage. Sociologist Corey D. Fields has noted that younger women are repositioning knitting as a way to counteract “the overwhelming influence of technology and abstraction in their work lives.” To counter the (misleading) depiction of knitting as the domain of white women, the #diverseknitty movement has drawn attention to the work of women of color and to questions of inclusion in the fiber arts community.

With the confidence that comes from finding validation — political and even academic — for something you enjoy, I grew bolder about knitting in the kinds of work situations that formerly drove me into the arms of my iPhone. I’ve knit my way through interminable conference calls, trusting that the caliber of my participation will justify the moments when my knitting drifts in view of the webcam. I’ve knit during conversations with potential colleagues, more focused than if I were sneaking glances at my phone. I’ve carried my needles to speaking gigs, and once got into the zone by working on a set of hand-knit Spock ears until it was time to take the stage. As long as there has been anyone in the room looking at a phone or laptop, I’ve felt justified in producing my knitting.

Still, a boardroom felt like a final frontier. At a recent meeting of a nonprofit board I’ve served on for the past three years, it was disconcerting to look up from my neat, colorful stitches and notice a ring of men watching me engage in a retro, analog activity when I’d been invited onto the board for my digital expertise. I felt a familiar flush of shame. Then I looked up once more at the actual men in my meeting. They were activists and operatives; men of color and gay men; men with experience as leaders, and men familiar with the experience of being the lone outlier in a crowded room. They weren’t looking at my knitting, or even looking at me. They were looking to me, because they sincerely wanted my perspective. And thanks to my full attention, I knew exactly what to say.

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Alexandra Samuel is a data journalist and technology consultant based in Vancouver.

 

Illustration by Geoffroy de Crécy

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