Our culture of distraction

| May 24, 2009 | 1 Reply

I remember the good old days, when I received a dozen or so emails every day at the office, thereby obviating the need to send and receive paper letters on those matters.   Then something unproductive happened.  As I started getting more and more emails, I found that they were becoming more fragmented, like stretched-out conversations, and more lost in a sea of emails that tried to sell me something or tried to make sure that I was constantly updated as to nothing very important.

Keeping up with email, then, has become both an incredible tool and a huge time drain.  I think of that every day as I read and create 100 emails, many of which require detailed responses.  Email, which was once a way to avoid sending and receiving paper letters, is now taking up several hours of every day.   Why don’t I turn it off and get a lot more done?   Because, every day, I end up decided that I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath-water.   I love-hate the way email barely often enough distracts my attention to something that barely often enough requires my attention.

Sam Anderson explores our new attention-divided culture in a New York Magazine article titled,  “In Defense of Distraction”:

This is troubling news, obviously, for a culture of BlackBerrys and news crawls and Firefox tabs—tools that, critics argue, force us all into a kind of elective ADHD. The tech theorist Linda Stone famously coined the phrase “continuous partial attention” to describe our newly frazzled state of mind. American office workers don’t stick with any single task for more than a few minutes at a time; if left uninterrupted, they will most likely interrupt themselves. Since every interruption costs around 25 minutes of productivity, we spend nearly a third of our day recovering from them. We keep an average of eight windows open on our computer screens at one time and skip between them every twenty seconds. When we read online, we hardly even read at all—our eyes run down the page in an F pattern, scanning for keywords. When you add up all the leaks from these constant little switches, soon you’re hemorrhaging a dangerous amount of mental power. People who frequently check their e-mail have tested as less intelligent than people who are actually high on marijuana. Meyer guesses that the damage will take decades to understand, let alone fix. If Einstein were alive today, he says, he’d probably be forced to multitask so relentlessly in the Swiss patent office that he’d never get a chance to work out the theory of relativity.

What should we do about this situation?  Anderson claims that the best approach to our attentional woes is to practice focusing through meditation:

The most promising solution to our attention problem, in Gallagher’s mind, is also the most ancient: meditation. Neuroscientists have become obsessed, in recent years, with Buddhists, whose attentional discipline can apparently confer all kinds of benefits even on non-Buddhists. (Some psychologists predict that, in the same way we go out for a jog now, in the future we’ll all do daily 20-to-30-minute “secular attentional workouts.”) Meditation can make your attention less “sticky,” able to notice images flashing by in such quick succession that regular brains would miss them.

Anderson reminds us that there are benefits to being so distractable.  For instance, we are now excelling at the ability to sift through information rapidly.

I agree that I now have better scanning skills, as do most of the people who invite distractions.  I hope no one minds, though, that I quite  often turn off all my phones and close off access to the outside world, in order to get something done carefully.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Community, Friendships/relationships, Internet, Language, Networking

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Zoevinly says:

    After reading Erich's article on distraction at the office, I thought about my own strategies for staying on task at the office. To get some serious reading or writing done, I press the "do not disturb" button on my phone, shut the door and close all internet windows – unless, of course, my reading material is on the internet.

    If I'm really serious about avoiding distractions, I'll print out the reading material, deciding that wasting paper is the lesser of two evils. Another lawyer recently gave me this 2002 Malcolm Gladwell article, which assuaged the guilt I feel over printing my reading material when I could read it online instead.

    Written in defense of paper, The New Yorker article documents the work of two social scientists who conducted a study about the value of office paper. In a nutshell, the article argues that paper's advantage in the workplace is that it's "spatially flexible, meaning that we can spread it out and arrange it in the way that suits us best. And it's tailorable: we can easily annotate it, and scribble on it as we read, without altering the original text." The article goes on to discuss the value of document piles as well, affirming my firm belief that the multitude of mountains on my (2) desks make me more efficient.

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