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Are We Distracted, or Are We Just Bored?

A recent article in the New York Times, entitled, “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price,” talks about the stress of multitasking and how it causes us to lose focus. This is but the latest in a series of articles alarming readers to how distracted we have become and how multitasking doesn’t really work for most people.

A recent article in the New York Times, entitled, “Hooked on
Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price
,” talks about the stress of multitasking
and how it causes us to lose focus. This is but the latest in a series of
articles alarming readers to how distracted we have become and how multitasking
doesn’t really work for most people. While
I agree with the basic premise, I also hear the drumbeat of a new (or not so
new) trend hearkening, accompanied by a bevy of self-help books, self-crowned
experts, and a never-ending series of talk shows and magazine articles. Central to this trend are the following points:

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• The plethora of digital devices vying
for our attention is driving us crazy.

• Ringing cell phones, pop-up alerts,
and the constant barrage of tweets, instant messages, and Facebook updates is
making it hard to concentrate

• The expectation to be “always on” is unhealthy
and it ruins our ability to think creatively

I agree with all of these points. It seems to make sense and
anyone who has all these devices can testify to the stress that accompanies the
continuous stimulus.

On the other hand, ask yourself the following questions. In which situations
are you more apt to check email and send text messages?

• At the ball park or at a family
wedding?

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• In the middle of a neighborhood basketball
game or in the checkout line at the supermarket?

• While reading a book on the train to
work or at your child’s class play?

• While you are playing video games or while
waiting at a traffic light?

My point is that while it is true that people have trouble “switching
off,” they are more likely to do so in situations where they are having
fun and where they are mentally engaged. Part of the problem is that many of
our daily tasks don’t require deep concentration–they require prompt
attention. Especially at work. We seem to be muddling through the day with
all the bells and whistles going off, while somehow keeping all the balls in the
air. More and more people at work are “connectors”
— basically, processing tasks and passing them off to the next person in the
workflow. While it may be stressful to deal with all the stimuli, it is not
necessarily performance constricting either.

At the end of the day, most people don’t really need to be “always
on.” I believe that people do so because they are bored and lack mental
stimulus. With all the buzzers and bells going off constantly, it is hard to
focus on activities that are slow and uninteresting. Checking email offers a respite from the lull
in stimulus. And here is where the
problem lies …

We are becoming a nation of people who can’t focus on slow-moving
activities, or activities that require contemplation. Therefore, we crave our digital distractions.
Just look at our surroundings. Everything
is boiled down into tidy sound bites, so that we don’t lose interest and zap to
the next channel or service. We used to get our news in ½ hour programs and in
daily newspapers. Now, it’s down to 3 minute podcasts and hyperlinked Web
pages. While we seem to be inundated by
more and more information, we end up knowing “more about less” than we ever
did. Perhaps the digital distractions
are shortening our attention span, but most people seem to be able to function
when they are mentally or emotionally engaged.
Try an experiment. Switch off the phone, the Blackberry, and the
Internet, and pick up a good book (even an e-book for the sake of argument) and
see how long you can remain focused. If
you truly enjoy the book, you should be able to go for hours before the urge to
check email pops up.

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A new cadre of “productivity tools” is hitting the market–these tools
temporarily block email and chat pop-ups, and our inhibit our ability to
navigate to time-wasting Internet sites for a predefined time. These tools are
supposed to help us focus. Some of these
tools even plot our activities, so we can later analyze how much time we wasted
and where the time went. Are we really
that digitally-crippled that we can’t manually turn off these interruptions in
order to concentrate? Do we really need a software program to tell us where we
wasted our time, thusly wasting even more time looking at its reports? Shouldn’t
we be able to tune out for at least a few hours a day?

So before we go back to our lists of tips about how to better
manage our time, I think we need to take a look in the mirror and ask
ourselves, what is the real cause of the itchy Blackberry thumb. I believe it has more to do with our being
bored than it does with a requirement to perform in real-time. So maybe we should shut off the TV and the
Internet and re-examine how we spend our day before we blame our digital
devices.

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About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission. In my 'spare' time, I am pursuing an advanced degree in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), focusing on how social collaboration tools impact our perceptions of being overloaded by information. I am an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.

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