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Distracted in the Workplace? Meet Maggie Jackson’s Book (Part 2 of 2)

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.

My plea­sure!


Distracted by Maggie JacksonMaggie’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

- Top 10 Brain Fit­ness Books

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  1. Isabelle says:

    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.

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