Launching the “Attention” Movement...Distracted, by Maggie Jackson

After finishing Maggie Jackson’s new book, Distracted, I wondered if I was experiencing the same reaction as those who read Rachel Carson’s seminal book on the environment, Silent Spring, in 1962.  Carson’s readers probably couldn’t use common pesticides without thinking twice.  Now instead of being swept away daily by the 24/7, high-tech, global reality, I find myself more actively choosing the parts I want and don’t want. 

Hopefully Distracted launches an “attention” movement similar to the increased environmental awareness spawned by Silent Spring, because as Jackson observes our “virtual, split-screen, and nomadic era is eroding opportunities for deep focus, awareness, and reflection” which, if left unchecked, will transform our lives in ways we collectively may want to reconsider.  

Why does it matter?  Jackson lays out a stark scenario whereby if we don’t rethink how we operate we will enter what she calls a “dark age”  which lies somewhere between “a cultural collapse that leads to an abyss of forgetfulness,” and a “decline in literacy.”  Either way, not a pretty picture with direct ramifications for work+life fit. 

As I’ve said for over a decade and in my book Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You (Riverhead, 2004), we all need to be much more mindful and deliberate about the way we manage our lives both inside and outside of work, especially as it relates to technology.  Gone are the days when a “boss” or “company” is going to tell you when work begins and ends.  No longer are the choices limited to working in an office, 9-to-5, five days a week, or not working at all. There are countless work+life fit combinations within our 24/7 world from which to choose.  We need to pay attention, seek our answers, and make our choices.  This requires a new mindset, skills and tools.  

What if we don’t start paying attention?  Jackson writes, “Smitten with the virtual, split-split, and nomadic, we are corroding the three pillars of our focus (orienting), judgment (executive function), and awareness (alerting).  The costs are steep: we begin to lose trust, depth and connection in our relations and our thought. Without a flourishing array of attentional skills, our world flattens and thins.  And most alarmingly, we begin to lose our ability to collectively face the challenges of our time.  Can a society without deep focus preserve and learn from its past?  Does a culture of distraction evolve to meet the needs of the future?”

The book presents both the causes and effects of distraction as they exist today.  But she also draws upon the work of numerous well-respected researchers to envision the future should our collective distraction remain unchallenged.  She looks at:

  • Our increasingly nomadic, and international lifestyle that results in weaker ties to place or community;
  • The way we interact with and consume the food we eat.  What it means not only for our health, but for the sense of community that the preparation and consumption of food has historically supported;
  • The way we raise our children in a world of increasing parental surveillance and control that erodes trust and independence;
  • The importance of developing and harnessing self-control as a key factor in success, and how it’s not happening to enough children;
  • How students of all ages—high school and college—are not mastering the sometimes challenging and frustrating process of critical research, and in-depth, rigorous thinking.  And how they are instead settling for the easiest, most accessible information that they repeat even if it isn’t accurate; and
  • How advances in robotics and prosthetics are changing the way we relate to each other emotionally and to ourselves physically.  

And check out Jackson’s description of the way the lack of attention manifests at work in Marci Alboher’s recent Shifting Careers column in The New York Times.  

What should we do?  According to Jackson and the many researchers she showcases, we need to understand how the brain works and start paying attention.  Of course this is easy to say but very hard to do in a world full of distractions, but we really don’t have a choice.  While they recommend consciously managing and periodically choosing to disconnect from technology, the solution on which Jackson spends the most time is meditation.  It’s one of the reasons I love the book.  

I’ve meditated for many years, and can attest to its power to increase all of the key “pillars of attention” that Jackson presents—focus, judgment, and awareness.  In fact, as I wrote in a posting a couple of months ago, I believe ultimately meditation will become a core competency, both professionally and personally.  And after reading Distracted, I’m even more convinced.

How have I changed my behavior since reading Distracted?  In the three days since I finished the book, I have:

  • Re-committed to maintaining my daily meditation and journaling practice even if it’s only for 15 minutes some days;
  • I answered my emails twice today but turned off my screen and my speakers so I wouldn’t be distracted when a message arrived in between;
  • I’ve instituted a “no TV” zone during breakfast for my kids.  Guess what?  After 10 minutes of complaining, they didn’t care; and
  • Since summer vacation began last week, my kids will have at least an hour of quiet time everyday to read, write in their journal, or do some other quiet activity that requires focus.  Guess what? They’ve done it without a fight. 

In the end, Jackson writes, “Are we heading into a dark age?  To ask this question is first to wonder whether we at present have much of a collective appetite for  wrestling meaningfully with uncertainties, and whether we have the will to carve out havens for deep thinking and the tempests of time.” 

So, what about you?  Do you have the appetite and the will?  Maybe you are already part of the “attention” movement.  I’d like to hear about what you are doing to become less distracted.

I will continue to update you on Maggie and her important attention-related work…stay tuned! 

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