Why can't you pay attention anymore? | CNET News.com
Ever wonder what all those electronic poking sticks might be doing to your attention span?
Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell has identified a late-onset cousin of ADD that he calls "Attention Deficit Trait," a "condition induced by modern life" and the endless "chatter" generated by our beepy devices and interrupt-driven lifestyles.
I don't know enough to evaluate the rigor of this theory in the eyes of a researcher or physician, but this CNET interview with Hallowell is filled with enough right-on quotes to have me nodding along all day.
(read through, after the cut, for our first Mindfulness Exercise)
You say technology in the form of e-mail, voice mail, instant messaging and so on is fueling this phenomenon. It's ironic that the information age is making a lot of us dimmer, isn't it?
Hallowell: Absolutely. Technology is a great blessing. It is behind much of our progress. But if we're not careful with it, it can start running us ragged. This is the person who spends the day responding to e-mail and voice mail; the person who allows himself to be interrupted by the cell phone during an important meeting; the person who stays up late at night because he can't log off the Internet. We need to take charge of it. Right now, it's taking charge of us. We need to preserve time to stop and think.
If you don't allow yourself to stop and think, you're not getting the best of your brain. What your brain is best equipped to do is to think, to analyze, to dissect and create. And if you're simply responding to bits of stimulation, you won't ever go deep.
Are some people just better at multitasking than others?
Hallowell: No one really multitasks. You just spend less time on any one thing. When it looks like you're multitasking--you're looking at one TV screen and another TV screen and you're talking on the telephone--your attention has to shift from one to the other. You're brain literally can't multitask. You can't pay attention to two things simultaneously. You're switching back and forth between the two. So you're paying less concerted attention to either one....
Do you think this is a generational thing? Kids now are growing up with e-mail, cell phones and so on. Maybe they'll be able to cope better than we do?
Hallowell: I think maybe they'll be more adept with these tools when they get to the workplace, but I think the same principles will apply. How you allocate your time and your attention is crucial. What you pay attention to and for how long really makes a difference. If you're just paying attention to trivial e-mails for the majority of your time, you're wasting time and mental energy. It's the great seduction of the information age. You can create the illusion of doing work and of being productive and creative when you're not. You're just treading water.
Mindfulness exercise: The catch-and-release distraction program
Spend one workday hour today or tomorrow self-consciously aware of each single task you're working on at a given time (try it: I'll bet it's a lot harder for you than it sounds).
Treat that task with a combination of relaxation, reverence, and the quiet awareness that, at least for the time that it's earned your attention, this is the single most important thing in the world. When you notice yourself half-assing, be aware of it, and allow your mind to gently turn back to focus.
As you stay focused on doing one valuable thing at a time, notice and mentally acknowledge all the times that you feel yourself being drawn to something else. Listen for the times that your mind pokes at you to tear ass over to email or your RSS reader, and just let the thought pass by, ungrasped. Hear the shrill ringy-dingy of your phone, but resist the urge to grab it before it goes to voice mail. Don't dwell on distractions; just note them, and let them go.
Just one hour. You can do it.
For bonus credit, when that hour is up, jot down 2-3 interruptions you think might deserve less attention than you've been allowing them. Assuming you wanted to turn down the volume and recapture more mindful attention, where could you cut fat and never miss it?