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Distracted in the Workplace? Meet Maggie Jackson’s Book

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 Distracted by Maggie Jacksonthe 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…
Distracted by Maggie Jackson

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).

Book: Dis­tract­ed: The Ero­sion of Atten­tion and the Com­ing Dark Age.

Relat­ed arti­cles and resources:

- The Over­flow­ing Brain: Most Impor­tant Book of 2008

- Top 10 Brain Fit­ness Books

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