THE BLOG

Distracted? Meet Maggie Jackson

04/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Alvaro Fernandez Named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, Alvaro is the co-author of The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age

Today we discuss some of the brain implications of "always on" workplaces and lifestyles via a fascinating interview with Maggie Jackson, an award-winning author and journalist. Her latest book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, describes the implications of our busy work and life environments and offers important reflections to help us thrive in them.

Alvaro Fernandez: New York Times columnist David Brooks said last year that we live in a Cognitive Age, and encouraged readers to be aware of this change and try and adapt to the new reality. Can you explain the cognitive demands of today's workplaces that weren't there 30-40 years ago?

Maggie Jackson: Our workplaces have changed enormously in recent decades, and it's easy to point to the Blackberry or the laptop as the sources of our culture of speed and overload and distraction. But it's important to note first that our 24/7, fragmented work culture has deeper roots. With the first high-tech inventions, such as the cinema, phonograph, telegraph, rail, and car, came radical changes in human experience of time and space. Distance was shattered -- long before email and red-eye flights. Telegraph operators -- not online daters -- experienced the first virtual love affairs, as evidenced by the 1890s novel Wired Love. Now, we wrestle with the effects of changes seeded long ago.

Today, the cognitive and physical demands on workers are steep. Consider 24/7 living. At great cost to our health, we operate in a sleepless, hurried world, ignoring cues of sun and season, the Industrial Age inventions of the weekend and vacation, and the rhythms of biology. We try to break the fetters of time -- and live like perpetual motion machines. That's one reason why we feel overloaded and stressed -- conditions that are corrosive to problem-solving and clear thinking.

At the same time, our technologies allow us access to millions of information bites -- producing an abundance of data that is both wondrous and dangerous. Unless we have the will, discipline and frameworks for turning this information into wisdom, we remain stuck on the surface of the "knowledge economy." Today, half of college students can't judge the objectivity of a website, and just 30 percent of college graduates can read a document as simple as a food label proficiently. A third of workers say they are often so busy and interrupted that they don't have time to reflect on the work they do. I worry that we are creating new forms of ignorance, based not on a lack of information but on a lack of will or ability to wrest knowledge from the oceans of information surrounding us. Google isn't making us stupid. And yet, are we using Google wisely?

Finally, we have developed a highly fragmented work style, thanks in part to the enormous influence of Frederick W. Taylor. Taylor was an efficiency guru who taught workers to chop up tasks so that each part of a project could be made to go faster. His theories, according to management guru Peter Drucker, have influenced the world as much as those of Marx or Freud. Today, the average office worker switches tasks every three minutes all day long, and nearly half of such interruptions -- both external and internal -- are self-imposed. Such a work style is correlated with stress, frustration and even lower creativity.

In this new world, we can revel in our ability to move freely across the globe, connect with millions of others instantly and tap newfound sources of potential knowledge. Yet too often, our new ways of working undermine our powers of attention, a tripartite set of skills related to awareness or wakefulness; focus or the spotlight of the mind; and executive attention, a package of higher-order skills related to judgment and planning. Our split-focus, frenetic, diffused lives undermine our powers of attention, leaving us detached, unfocused and scattered.

Q - What may the role of spending hours per day in front of a TV?

A - Today, we are exposed to far more than television everyday. YouTube, movies, animated billboards, laptops, Muzak, iPods and other devices envelop us by choice and by default in streams of visual and aural distractions, information and ads. The average American child is exposed to nearly six hours of non-print media a day. So determining the specific impact of just one type of media is difficult in this new media world. Still, it's certain that this environment shapes us, and molds our incredibly plastic brains, in ways we can only begin to fathom. According to work by Daniel Anderson at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, toddlers exposed to "background television" - tv running in the background of family life -- are more likely to show attention deficiencies. They play more briefly with toys, show less focus with their play, and interact less with parents.

As humans, we are born interrupt-driven. In order to survive, we need to focus on new stimuli in our environment and stay vigilant to changes around us. This is why we are prey to and delighted by quick-moving, enticing, complex media -- at home and at work. In the office especially, if we're constantly reacting to the new, new thing, we wind up doing nothing more than putting out fires and keeping our email inbox empty. We are less inclined to wrestle with the bigger, messy, problems of the day. Today, we must place ourselves back in the driver's seat of our attention. We need to take charge of our environment and our attentional skills, and recapture time for reflection, deep problem-solving and creativity. As one top executive once told me, "thinking can't be done in sound bites."

Q - In your Harvard Management Update interview, you said that "When what we pay attention to is driven by the last email we received, the trivial and the crucial occupy the same plane." As well, it seems to be that a problem is our culture's over-idealization of "always on" and "road warrior" habits, which distract from the importance of executive functions such as paying attention to one's environment, setting up goals and plans, executing on them, measuring results, and internalizing learning. How can companies better equip their employees for future success? Can you offer some examples of companies who have positive cultures that encourage and reward employees fully put their frontal lobes into good use?

A - As I mentioned above, we are working and living in ways that undermine our ability to strategize, focus, reflect and innovate. Skimming, multitasking and speed all have a place in 21st-century life. But we can't let go of deeper skills of focus and thinking and relating, or we'll create a society of misunderstanding and shallow thinking.

To create workplaces that foster strategic thinking, deep social connection and innovation, we need to take three steps:

First, question the values that venerate McThinking and undermine attention. Recently, my morning paper carried a front-page story about efforts "in an age of impatience" to create a quick-boot computer. "It's ridiculous to ask people to wait a couple of minutes to start up their computer," explained one tech executive. The first hand up in the classroom, the hyper business-man or woman who can't sit still, much less listen -- these are icons of success in American society. Still, many of us are beginning to question our adoration of instant gratification and hyper-mobility.

Second, we need to set the stage for focus individually and collectively by rewriting our climate of distraction and inattention. To help, some companies and business leaders are experimenting with "white space" - the creation of physical spaces or times on the calendar for uninterrupted, unwired thinking and connection. Executives are scheduling "quiet time" in their calendars to recapture space for reflection. One architect's design for a major new government laboratory specifically creates spaces for focus, as well as collaboration. IBM's global practice of "ThinkFridays" began three years ago when software engineers decided to limit email, conference calls and meetings one day a week in order to focus on their creative, patent work. Now, different teams and departments interpret "ThinkFridays" in varied ways. This pioneering initiative is fluid, flexible and workable -- more so than the rigid, top-down policies that ban email one day a week.

Finally, if there's just one action we can take to spark a "renaissance of attention," it should be to give the gift of our attention to others. Parents and leaders, in particular, need to role model attention. As contemplative scholar Alan Wallace says, "When we give another person our attention, we don't get it back. We're giving our attention to what seems worthy of our life from moment to moment. Attention, the cultivation of attention, is absolutely core."

Q - Some essential skills to thrive in the Cognitive Age seem to be attention, emotional self-regulation, working memory. These capacities are today understood to be less immutable than once thought, with emerging research opening the way for training programs that, for example, perhaps Fortune 500 companies will want too offer in the future as part of their corporate training and leadership programs, Your view?

A - Remarkably, scientists are now beginning to understand the mysteries and workings of attention and its sister skills of working memory and self-regulation. They are also discovering that attention can be trained, a finding that should revolutionize parenting, education and workplace training. In just five days of computer-based training, the brains of 6-year-olds begin to act like adults on measures of executive attention, one study by Michael Posner found. Torkel Klingberg's work has shown that boosting short-term memory seems to improve children's ability to stay on task. We don't yet know how long-lasting the gains are, but practices such as meditation, computer-based exercises and behavioral therapies have been proved to boost focus, awareness, working memory and executive attention. The philosopher/psychologist Williams James thought that attention could not be highly trained by "drill or discipline," but he was wrong.

Still, there are important caveats to keep in mind. Some researchers question computer-based efforts as too narrow in scope, arguing that people must be taught attention holistically, as a life skill. No brief training regime is likely to be a magic bullet. "Part of the problem in today's society is that people are looking for extremely quick fixes that have no vision. People are looking to lose 20 pounds for the wedding next week," neuroscientist Amir Raz of McGill University once told me. "But attention training is a slow process." As well, machine-based training will not be the only way to strengthen attention. Certainly, technology truly augments the human mind, and our gadgets will evolve to better help us focus and think. Yet it's a mistake to believe that computers, or pharmaceuticals for that matter, can replace the hard, difficult work that we all face in "upgrading" ourselves.

Q - Neuroscientist Torkel Klinkgerg recently told our readers that "modern life itself may help make us more cognitively able. And emerging tools may enhance our abilities and better prepare us for the demands of the Information Age." What are the opportunities and the risks you see ahead of us?

A - We now have easy access to reams of data, ever-expanding social networks, and limitless experiences across the planet and in the new frontier of cyberspace. The potential for learning, connection, fulfillment is great. But at the moment, we are not realizing this potential. Despite our scientific and technical achievements, we are squandering our chances to create a high-tech, yet reflective and caring society. And yet I am optimistic. In this time of flux, uncertainty, mistrust and collapse, we may nevertheless be shaken enough to reconsider our taken-for-granted ways of thinking and being. We may be ready to effect change. The task before us - to spark a renaissance of attention - is monumental, and yet it's as crucial as greening the planet or rebuilding our financial system. For we can only meet the challenges of our day by strengthening, not undermining, our powers of attention.

Maggie, thank you very much for your time and attention.

My pleasure!

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