When I was a kid growing up in West Texas, there came a time late at night when the television screen would turn to "snow," a static display that informed the watcher that no more programs were scheduled. They were essentially saying to viewers, "We have no more content to give you."
Today, there is not only a massive amount of content to consume at all hours, but it comes at an increasing speed. In fact, if there is one thing that has most changed in our culture in recent years, it is likely this: never before has our attention been pulled in so many different directions.
On the one hand, this is great, as we have choices like never before. On the other, one-pointed attention is more difficult than ever to access, but is greatly needed for certain actions, whether it is talking to a friend, working on a project or making love. All require a certain level of focused attention. Mashable recently reported on a study that found that 38 percent of college students cannot go 10 minutes without technology. Their attention is basically not able to focus on anything other than technology for more than 10 minutes. This likely includes those in a recent study that found that 15 percent of people take phone calls during sex!
While a certain amount of "attention switching" is needed and helpful, too much has been found to limit our effectiveness. A study at Stanford found that heavy multitaskers were much worse than others at filtering out irrelevant information, organizing their memories or switching from one thing to another. Light multitaskers consistently outperformed heavy multitaskers in all the tests.
The challenge is to know at any given moment where our attention is most needed. If our cell phone rings while we are talking to a friend, do we pick it up out of habit, or do we take the call because we know that is where our attention is most needed? The question is not whether to answer the call; it is instead the level of awareness behind the action, whether we are switching channels consciously or unconsciously.
In fact, one of the more useful questions to ask oneself through out the day is, "In this moment, where is my attention most needed?"
If you are like me, you may find that often your attention is focused on something quite different from what you intend. If we cannot catch these moments, we may find that we miss all those activities of life that require more than 10 minutes of focus to enjoy.
The good part, however, is that in the moment of remembering, our attention is readily available again.
Soren Gordhamer is the author of "Wisdom 2.0" and organizer of the Wisdom 2.0 Conferences, which unites staff from technology companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook with individuals from wisdom traditions to explore living with deeper purpose, presence and wisdom in our modern lives.