Today we continue the conversation with Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.
You can read part 1 here.
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.
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 architects design for a major new government laboratory specifically creates spaces for focus, as well as collaboration. IBMs global practice of Think Fridays 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 Klingbergs 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 are proven 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.
Maggie’s Book: Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
Related articles and resources:
- Part 1 of the interview with Maggie Jackson
- The Overflowing Brain: Most Important Book of 2008
I happen to think the era of multi-tasking, always on and hyperconnected, is turning into a bubble, and our culture is headed towards an Attention Recession. This new book adds to my suspicions.