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Attention! Yours is at risk!

You know how it starts…

You’re trying to concentrate on the computer, perhaps reading an article, writing a document, thinking through a problem, or searching for a recipe. After five minutes of concentration, a text pops up. You think, Might be a family member or something else urgent. Better check it. You discover it’s nothing important and return to work. A few more minutes of work and you see a notification flash on the screen: an email from a good friend you’ve been missing. You think, I can just take a moment to check it, right? 

These little interruptions seem innocuous enough but beware, with each interruption that asks you to switch tasks and take your attention away from what you’ve been doing, your focus, information retention, and productivity go down. Now it will take you longer to complete that project.

Welcome to the world of distractions

When it comes to concentrating, the odds aren’t stacked in our favor. Even focusing on a relatively simple task requires your brain to do three things:

Maintain a goal–and filter out what’s not relevant.
Hold information by using your working memory.
Avoid distractions. (LIke that text and email.)

Staying focused for fifteen minutes shouldn’t be hard, except that it turns out it is. The amount of time we, in our culture, can concentrate has decreased.

This week, I confirmed the extent of our problem by reading The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Authors Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen present extensive research results to document how the brain works, what it takes to maintain attention, and why we’re so easily distracted.

They cite an experiment in which students from middle school, high school, and university levels were tasked to study something important for fifteen minutes.

The finding? Students in all three groups could stay focused for an average of only three to five minutes before switching to another task–often social media or texting. (How does anyone still teach?)

Every time a student darts away to check social media and then comes back to a task, she or he has lost some cognitive power and usually, the tasks will take longer to complete.

Attention is an endangered quantity.

Those of us who are a little, er, older are even more at risk because, according to the research, we have a harder time filtering out distractions. Once a little distraction slips through the gates of a mind, it is harder for us to regain focus.

Threats to our attention are everywhere. Most of us live attached to distraction machines called smartphones

The statistics on how much time younger people spend texting or talking on their phones is boggling. Smartphone addiction, though, isn’t limited to the young. Check out the stats on what happens to our anxiety levels when we can’t be with our phones.

Just at a time when the United States should be developing minds capable of “deep work” and sustained thinking, that can lead the way toward innovation, we’re driving ourselves to distraction.

The perils of task switching

You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t multi-task.

The word “multi-task” is a computer term that is used to mean doing two or more activities requiring thinking at the same time. It doesn’t accurately describe what humans do. Computers can run multiple programs at the same time. Unfortunately, you, stuck in an analog mind, cannot. What we call “multi-tasking” is just switching our attention very rapidly between tasks.

This skill of task-switching comes with a price. Gazzaley and Rosen document how much it costs us in terms of information retention, increased time required to complete a project, and reduced results. Not to mention the increased anxiety we feel when we’re trying to think about several things at the same time.

Or the fact that focusing elsewhere while driving or crossing an intersection, is not safe.

The risks of boredom and Shiney Object Syndrome (SOS)

The authors write, “There is evidence that the rate of both our boredom and our anxiety accumulation while engaged in information foraging is actually increasing in recent times, seemingly in direct response to modern technology.”

Boredom then makes you more susceptible to the next shiny digital object tempting you.

Let’s face it, checking texts and email can be fun, especially when occasionally we’re rewarded by a piece of information that engages us–Intermittant reinforcement being the most persuasive.

It’s certainly more fun for most of us than:

  1. Doing our taxes,
  2. Trying to finish reading that long article that is critical to our work.
  3. Writing that document we committed to do that is moving like sludge.

Compared to our not-so-thrilling project, a text message can seem seductively urgent. The more boring or mundane our “real work,” the more susceptible we are to interruption.

As a high school senior in English class, (way back then!) I was often bored and tried to read novels while my teacher lectured. (It turns out, that he didn’t appreciate this!) Imagine if I’d had a mobile device. With access to instant amusement, I’d have transcended his ramblings altogether, and let my grades take the hit.

I repeat: I wonder how anyone teaches these days.

Every time students dart away to check social media and then return to their tasks, they lose some cognitive power, and their projects will take longer to complete. Their information retention goes down. Often, so do their grades.

Artfully crafted seduction

Social media, that wasteland of shiny objects, is engineered to distract your attention. Sometimes, after a stint of work, I’ll offer myself a brief reward (well earned), and will scan media headlines or skim Facebook.

My break begins innocently enough. But then in the Washington Post headlines, there are at least two juicy tidbits, and I have to find out what (fill in the blank) the President has done this time. On Facebook, click-bait headlines are waiting to seduce me. Before I know it (this is true, alas) I’m checking out what ten top models look like without their makeup, reading a list of ten celebrities who I didn’t know recently died, and yes, learning whether Brad Pitt would go back to Jennifer Aniston (I’m embarrassed.)


What to do?

This week, I suggest that you read The Distracted Mind to learn about the magnitude of the problem, and then send me your solutions.  Next week, I’ll share your ideas along with the authors’ and some of my own.

Just in case you have any doubt there’s a problem, I’ll close with some statistics about smartphone use from the book:

55% of adults access their smartphone while driving.
35% use them in a movie theatre.
33% use them on a dinner date.
32% of parents use them while attending their children’s school functions.
19% use them in church.
12% use them in the shower.
9% use them during sex. (You got me there…)

Believe me friends, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Just notice the role your smartphone and other attention diverting devices have in your life, and we’ll talk more next week (assuming, of course, that you’re not too distracted.)

3 Responses

  1. Ack! I can’t read the book because I’m behind on the other books I need to read because I’ve been…too distracted. What a trap! I’m now off FB, only skimming the Wash Post headlines, and trying to keep my focus on actual, you know, tasks. One at a time. Till they’re finished. How boring! (And gratifying.) Keep posting, Sally. I love your messages!

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