Mar 7, 2009
By: Alvaro Fernandez
Today we’ll discuss some of the cognitive 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.
This is a 2-part interview conducted via e-mail: we will publish the continuation on Thursday March 12th.
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 workstyle, 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 workstyle 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 mediated 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, 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.
To Be Continued…
Please remember: we will publish the continuation of this interview on Thursday March 12th. (yes, you can consider this a test of your executive functions and/ or your memory).
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