Some people call switching our attention between things that vie for it “multi-tasking”.
A crisis of attention I want to ask people a simple question: are you happy with your relationship with your phone. I don’t think I have a healthy relationship with mine. If I let it, it easily fills up those gaps in my day—some gaps of boredom, some of solitude.I feel a constant need to pull it out – to check email, to text, to see if there is something interesting happening RIGHT NOW. [show the 2 slides on ‘phone addiction’ and ‘35% look before getting out of bed’]. Look at how internet access has changed since smart phones came into being (and this data is a year old, so I’m certain it’s even more in this direction).Your brain is merely trying to rapidly switch it’s attention between two tasks. It’s shown not only that we’re dumber when we do this (an average of 10 IQ points dumber – that’s the same as pulling an all-nighter.), but that we’re also 40% less efficient at whatever it is we’re doing.But, my favorite part about multi-tasking is that it’s proven that the more you do it, the worse you are at it. It’s one of the only things where the more you practice it, the worse you get at it. I’d argue that what’s happening is that we’re becoming like the mal-formed weight lifter who trains only their upper body and has tiny little legs. Now it’s an opportunity to send an email or a text.
The reason why that’s the case is that when you practice distraction (which is what multi-tasking really is – paying attention to something that distracted you from what you were originally paying attention to), you’re training your brain. Why do most all of us seem to fall prey to these devices even as we know they’re causing a real problem for us? The first is that we’re perfectly mal-adapted, biologically speaking, to these devices. We’re radically over-developing the parts of quick thinking, distractable brain and letting the long-form-thinking, creative, contemplative, solitude-seeking, thought-consolidating pieces of our brain atrophy by not using them. Part II – What are we losing as a result of our short attention span and easy distractability? You’re eating lunch with a friend and they excuse themselves to the restroom. Now, you pull our your phone because being unstimulated makes you feel anxious. We didn’t think gap time and “boredom” were valuable.
You’re training your brain to pay attention to distracting things. When our ancestors, the Geico guys, were sitting out on the savanna and the tree next to them rustled. My favorite summary line on this whole topic comes from Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies technology and society. Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Now that we’re losing it, we get a sense of just how valuable it was. Besides taking a break from distraction, another step is to ACTIVELY TRAIN your long-form attention and mindfullness. Whatever form it takes, make it a DAILY practice of slowing down. Perhaps the most interesting or provocative approach to solving it, harkens back to that line at the end of the Microsoft commercial – ‘we need a phone to save us from our phones’. There is a small academic movement called Slow Tech.