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The Cost of Not Paying Attention

We live in a multitasking, ultra-connected, hyperactive world that constantly demands our attention. As we struggle to keep up, are we losing our ability to focus and engage in deep, reflective thought? In this interview, Maggie Jackson, author of the bestselling book Distracted, discusses the attention-deficit crisis and how we can overcome it.

Maggie Jackson is an award-winning author and journalist who writes the popular "Balancing Acts" column in the Boston Globe. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times and on National Public Radio, among other national publications. She is the author of Distracted and What's Happening to Home: Balancing Work, Life and Refuge in the Information Age, which examines the loss of home as a refuge.

Q: One of the most startling statistics you cite in your book is that the average worker typically changes tasks every three minutes—skipping around from reading and answering e-mail, to surfing the Web, to answering the phone, etc. What effect does all this hyperkinetic activity have on our ability to concentrate on finishing a particular project?

Maggie Jackson: Humans are built to be interrupt-driven – that’s how we stay tuned to our environment. But carried to an extreme, interruptions and frenetic multitasking can undermine our opportunities and ability to think and connect deeply. First, switching rapidly between tasks carries “switch costs.” To hop from one task to another, we have to pull away cognitively from one activity, then fire up the new rules and skills needed for the new task. Rapid-fire switching is inefficient and prone to error. As well, once interrupted, a worker takes an average 25 minutes to return to what they’d originally been doing, according to research by Gloria Mark at the University of California/Irvine. That’s because we have a limited short-term memory. All in all, hopscotching from task to task leads to a culture of loose threads and fragmentation, an environment that is not conducive to deep, reflective thought.

Q: Do you think this kind of inability, or unwillingness, to throw one’s self into work reflects a general sense of disengagement? Are workers today just more disconnected from their work?

Jackson: Engaged workers are willing to go the extra mile at work. They are energetic, passionate and focused. But today one quarter of workers are minimally engaged or disengaged, one recent study reports. Undoubtedly, there is a strong link between a climate of hyper-distraction and a lack of engagement. One third of workers say they are so busy, they do not have time to reflect on the work they do. Half have to juggle so many tasks or are so interrupted that they find it hard to get work done. And highly interrupted workers are more likely to be stressed and frustrated. Moreover, workers produce creative work only on days when they are feeling focused, not when they are scattered and diffused, according to decades of studies by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School. Rich, deep engagement at work is undermined by environments of split-focus and overload.

Q: In a Wired article about the effects of technology and the Internet on the economy, the magazine’s editor Chris Anderson had this to say about attention: "…money is not the only scarcity in the world. Chief among the others are your time and respect... There is, presumably, a limited supply of reputation and attention in the world at any point in time. These are the new scarcities — and the world of free exists mostly to acquire these valuable assets for the sake of a business model to be identified later."

In the context of that, can you talk a little bit about this idea of the “attention economy”? It seems to me that there are two ways of looking at it. One is that when attention is treated as a valuable asset, perhaps we’ll become more thrifty and not spend it so unwisely, as we do now. The other is that it’s deeply troubling to think of assigning an economic value to attention.

Jackson: It’s problematic to me to talk about an attention economy, since attention is not literally a commodity, like oil or wheat. Moreover, there is no fixed allotment of human attention. We are always paying attention to our environment in one way or another. Instead, it’s far more enlightening to begin to educate ourselves about the true nature and workings of attention. In just the past generation, scientists have begun to define attention and its mechanics, and even discover that attention can be trained and strengthened. Attention is not a single thing. It’s now considered to be an organ system, in that parts of the brain and body work in complex alignment to perform the feat we call attention. Furthermore, there are three “networks” or types of attention, all of which often work in tandem to help us stay tuned to our environment yet pursue our goals. Focus is the spotlight of the mind, awareness is our sensitivity to our surroundings and executive attention includes the higher-order skills of planning and judgment. We can thrive in a complex, fast-paced, high-tech world by learning how to better cultivate our attentional skills.

Q: Aside from the consequences that diminishing attention spans have for businesses, your larger point is that losing our ability to pay attention means losing a part of what makes us human. Can you elaborate on that a little?

Jackson: Lose our ability to focus and we cannot connect deeply with others or tenaciously solve a complex problem. Undermine our awareness and we become detached from the world around us. Poorly utilize our executive attention skills and we become black-and-white, relativistic thinkers. In total, cultivating an attention-deficient culture leaves us unprepared for meeting future challenges. Renowned ADHD researcher Russell Barkley observes that someone with ADHD is “more under control of external events than of mental representations about time and the future, under the influence of others rather than acting to control the self, pursuing immediate gratification over deferred gratification and under the influence of the temporal now more than of the probable social futures that lie ahead.” He concludes that ADHD is a disorder of “attention to the future and what one needs to do to prepare for its arrival.” Without attentional prowess, we aren’t living up to our full capacities as human beings.

Q: What can we do to fight the attention-deficit crisis?

Jackson: There is much we can do to fight the attention-deficit crisis. Collectively, we can question multi-tasking and hyper-activity as markers of success and cultivate a renewed appreciation for reflection, stillness and deep social connection, all of which are activities that take time. Second, we need to do more to nurture our powers of attention. Scientists are beginning to understand how attention can be trained. This is an important avenue of research if we are to create a high-tech yet caring and reflective society.