Today, I had the chance to speak with Maggie Jackson, whose book I highlighted in last weeks “top 10 book” post. This book is very timely, especially when we continuously talk about how social media is impacting our lives. A lot of the time, I give you positive benefits such as expert positioning, while other posts I’ve spoken about how reputation management is required in the digital age. Maggie talks about how we must be aware of these distractions and how to live a life with more focus.
Maggie is an award-winning author and journalist known for her penetrating coverage of U.S. social issues. She writes the popular “Balancing Acts” column in the Sunday Boston Globe, and her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Gastronomica and on National Public Radio. Her latest book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, details the steep costs of our current epidemic deficits of attention, while revealing the astonishing scientific discoveries that can help us rekindle our powers of focus in a world of speed and overload.
1) Maggie, how will distractions pull us into the dark age?
A dark age is a turning point in history, and it is not a one-dimensional time of negative occurrences and lack of progress. For instance, many past dark ages experienced incredible tech gains. In the Middle Ages, the eyeglasses, the fireplace, the windmill, the stirrup, the rudder, the compass, and the mechanical clock were invented. But in total, a dark age is a time of cultural losses. It’s a dark time when we are not going deeply in thought or relationships because we are not using our powers of attention fully and wisely.
For instance, it’s one thing to be ignorant because of a lack of information; it’s another to be ignorant when we’re surrounded by information, but we don’t have the will or ability to tap into it. If we think that what comes up first on Google is knowledge, then I argue that we as a civilization are slipping into a dark age. And today, studies show that tech-savvy younger people often don’t know how to evaluate or assess information from the Web. U.S. 15-year-olds rank 24th out of 29 developed countries on assessments of problem-solving – a key twenty-first century skill. And U.S. knowledge workers are so scattered and interrupted that they say they literally don’t have time to think.
Second, if the thinnest type of person-to-person contact is what we prefer, this is another sign of a dark age. Our technologies have given us extraordinary connectivity. One sociologist parsed the five-year email archive of one 24-year-old and found that he had ties to 11.7 million people in the world! Yet studies show that when our networks of tie grow, we have less contact with others – fewer face to face meetings, telephone calls etc – except by email. We are increasingly depending too heavily on diets of the thinnest, most faceless means of communications. One quarter of Americans have no close confidante – a level of social isolation significantly higher than even just 20 years ago. Social networks and other tech ties have a place in our digital world, but they shouldn’t be our front and center, dominant means of relating to one another.
Two points are important to keep in mind: I’m not saying ‘Blame the Blackberry’ or any technology. We live in a world of flux, and that changes how we pay attention. Our awareness is a little more blurry and our focus is split and diffused. We live in a culture of distraction, one where our attentional skills are eroding, because of deep changes in our society, culture, and habits – and new experiences of time and space. Of course, the way in which we live also gives us great positive rewards as well—freedom, mobility, the idea that careers are fluid, the flattening of hierarchies. The costs are diffusion and fragmentation, and that undermine our abilities to relate and think deeply.
2) Are all distractions necessary? Even though, as you say, they consume 28% of the average US worker’s day, do you feel that they can actually help someone, instead of lowering productivity?
Distraction and being distracted are slippery concepts, because a distraction is in the eye of the beholder. I can be distracted by the screen, or focused on the screen and distracted by my daughter. The distraction is whatever pulls you away from your primary goal. Distraction in and of itself is not bad; in the medical world, distraction is one of the main ways in which pain can be alleviated.
Distraction, for me, is shorthand for not using our attentional skills well. There are no specific distractions that are categorically bad. I’m also not arguing that technology itself is bad. I’m arguing that we’re off-kilter; the balance has flung too far towards these shallower means of communication and thought. We need to wrestle ourselves back so we don’t lose the capability to understand what it is to think and relate deeply – and to pursue our goals.
3) How can one avoid distraction? Do you have 3 top tips?
1) Speak a Language of Attention – Attention isn’t just one thing. It’s now considered by many neuroscientists to be a tripartite set of skills made up of focus, awareness, and executive attention, i.e. planning and decision-making. Perhaps most importantly, scientists are beginning to discover that attention can be bolstered through practice and training. There’s more research yet to be done on this score, but these initial discoveries can help us thrive in a world of overload. Try deliberately using all your senses to expand your awareness fully when you’re in a new situation, such as a job interview. Or when you are struggling with a tough task, try keeping the “spotlight” of your focus on that challenge, pulling it back if your mind drifts. Think of these attentional skills as different arrows in your cognitive quiver.
2) Be Wary of Interruptions – An interruption is much more than a delay in your to-do list. Researchers from the new field of “interruption science” have discovered that knowledge workers switch tasks every three minutes. And once interrupted, a worker takes an average 25 minutes to return to their original task, according to informatics scientist Gloria Mark. Humans are built to be interrupted, since that’s how we stay tuned to changes in our environment. But that means we have trouble pursuing our goals, and even remembering our goals, since our short-term memory is quite limited. Try to turn off the ringers and control the urge to check email constantly if you want to get focused work done.
3) Focus on One Another – We’re so used to splitting our focus between pdas and tvs, and people and tasks that it’s hard to truly attend to any one thing. But continuous partial attention undermines the depth and quality of our relationships and our interactions. When we give each other half-focus in conversations, on conference calls, or at meals, we are effectively saying, “you aren’t worth my time.”