I’ve written about attention in this blog before. I started thinking about it again because of a series of articles about its flip side, distraction. Mobile devices, it seems, have become a real challenge in college classrooms. Professors are fighting back with digital etiquette, and, more creatively, incorporating devices into the lesson.
I find people are extremely reluctant to acknowledge that such digital distractions are a problem. Many of us have the impression that we can take on many jobs at the same time. (If you want to waste some time, get into a discussion with someone under 30 about multitasking.) And we have the means nowadays to put our faith in our multitasking capability into action because our devices are portable and connected.
The New York Times provided an interesting test on focus and distractibility. You may want to check it out to see if your imagined skills match your real ability to multitask. I scored quite well in these tests (even though a cat decided to jump into my lap), but I have little faith in my own multitasking skills. I can’t imagine doing what many students do nowadays—sitting through a lecture with a webpage open or a text conversation in progress. I am someone who is intensely interested in nuance. The price I pay when I’m reading is obvious. I finish reading books at a glacial pace.
Without a doubt, more technology is available to distract us than to focus our attention. It is difficult to have more than a few minutes go by where we don’t get notice of an e-mail, a tweet, a social network addition, a phone call or a text message. One IBM vice president I worked for told me that the most valuable component of future devices would be the off switch, and I think we have reached that point in history.
Of course, unless we have a job or a critical family situation where we need to be instantly available, we do have the option of turning off devices and focusing on whatever task is at hand. So far, we still have off switches on our devices. We also have timers (as I mentioned in my last post), that can help us to dedicate a set number of minutes to a task without the fear that we will get lost in the work and neglect other obligations. (I’ll point out that there is nothing I enjoy more than getting lost in the task, even if it means neglecting other obligations.)
But does technology offer us other ways to avoid distractions? Again, there are a few (such as making only one line visible at a time) mentioned in my last post. And there are some obvious technologies, such as noise canceling earphones, that can close out distractions. But the route to understanding the possibilities is to delve more deeply into the benefits of attention, and I’ll do that in my next post.