Welles: The dark age of distraction

We live in an age of overload. If you are feeling overwhelmed, don’t go to a bookstore because the newest management books present an apocalyptic picture of work life today.
The litany of evils include:

  • No family life, but rather a network of kin connected by cell phones and computers. Families seldom sit down together for dinner.

  • No face time with children who are texting or with colleagues who are sending e-mail messages on BlackBerries.

  • No real world as people and workplaces increasingly focus on the virtual world.

Overload is created by too much information and too many interruptions. In her book “Distracted, The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age,” journalist and author Maggie Jackson predicts a grim future.

In a webinar by World at Work and the Association of Work Life Professionals, Jackson said there is no generational divide on the problem of overload. Few use the tools of technology wisely, she said. As a result, overload is undermining our ability to pay attention and focus.

She points to multitasking, e-mail and phone calls as major interrupters that undermine attention. By multitasking, we toggle back and forth between tasks, having a split focus and going off track each time we switch. After checking a new e-mail message or answering a call, it can take you about 25 minutes to return to a task. Interruptions, Jackson writes, consume about two hours from a workday and cost the U.S. economy $588 billion a year. 

The growing reliance on fragments and snippets of information marks the beginning of a cultural decline. By undermining attention, she writes, we are moving into a dark age of distraction.
Dark times are not necessarily all bad. They can mark a civilization’s turning point. These are often periods of technological advances along with social decline. Learning from dark ages of the past, we need to start a renaissance of attention, she writes.

Attention is the building block of learning. The highest order of skill is executive attention when we are fully engaged in listening to one another and responding.

“How can we truly connect and work together when we are attached to gadgets and only half together?” she asks. “If you are giving half an ear to a colleague or your child with a BlackBerry in your ear, what are you saying about the importance of that person? Instead, stop and give a little attention to another.”
In the webinar, Jackson suggested ways to reduce distractions:

  • Avoid checking your e-mail while on vacation because it keeps half your focus at work and away from your family.

  • Spare colleagues some distraction by sending only truly important e-mail messages.

  • Consider instituting “no e-mail Fridays” or a time during the day when you do not look at e-mail messages.

To reverse a darkening time, try finding time without distractions.

Welles (judywelles@1105govinfo.com) is a retired federal employee who has also worked in the private sector. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week.

About the Author

Judith Welles is a retired federal employee who has also worked in the private sector. She lives in Bethesda, Md.

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