A Challenge to our Attention-Challenged Generation

People who read my writings know that I have a particular fondness for the keynote speeches when I go to an industry trade show. They help bring a deeper perspective to your work, something that day-to-day job execution makes difficult to otherwise achieve. This year’s SES San Jose was no exception. The first keynote at this year’s conference was by Lee Siegel, author of “Against The Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.”

One thing Siegel draws out for us is the way technology has evolved our culture and our brains. He believes we’re increasingly having difficulty paying attention, and that this behavior is encouraged. It’s also increasingly difficult to be alone, and the anonymity of the Internet invites people to act out, as there are no consequences to actions. There is truth in what Siegel says, and what follows are my thoughts on the related issues.

The Attention-Challenged Era

Prior to the invention of the printing press, knowledge was learned and retained one brain at a time. This forced certain types of thinking patterns upon us. As the printing press came out, there was less need to retain each fact in one’s own brain.

This trend has continued over the decades, with the latest culmination being the Internet. Since nearly all knowledge is online, there’s little incentive to retain it in one’s own brain.

Further, we’ve become an interruption-driven culture. When I sit at my computer, the e-mails I receive are shown to me in a little pop-up window on the bottom right of my screen. It begs me to run to it immediately, instead of continuing to work on whatever I was doing.

If I successfully ignore that, my phone beeps to tell me I have a text message. It’s some friend of mine who wants to chat in real time. However, if I want to converse with them this way, I send a reply, and then need to wait anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes before I get a reply, or perhaps they get interrupted and I get no reply at all.

What do I do with the free time I have between messages? Do I try to go back to what I was doing? Do I wait? What if they don’t get in touch with me? Most people will flip back to their prior task and see how much they can get done before the next interruption.

Before I finish the text messaging session with my friend, the phone rings. I text my friend that I will “brb” and go deal with the phone call. Two minutes into that, my call waiting tells me I have another call coming in. As I deal with that, my instant messenger client pops up a window telling me I have someone trying to contact me over there.

Do you see where all this is going? We’re entering an attention-challenged era. All these interruptions seem to be training our brains not to spend time focused on one task. It’s increasingly hard to spend 10 consecutive minutes on one task, let alone something like two hours.

Real Work, Real Time

Here’s the problem with all this. Nothing important ever gets invented or created or built without putting in some serious time thinking about it. It takes time and attention to get real work done. what happens to our world if our best and brightest minds can no longer do that?

Responding to an e-mail to remove an action from your list and put it on someone else’s list isn’t real work. Agreeing on a time for a conference call isn’t real work.

So, I offer you a challenge. Fight the urge to accept the interruption. Or, make sure there are times of the day where you’re prepared for interruptions, and times of the day when you aren’t. Use those times when you aren’t going to take interruptions to work on larger tasks.

For a Web developer, this is heavy-duty programming time. For a product manager, it might be implementing a new site design. For a sales person, it might be writing a difficult proposal. Everybody has tasks that require a deeper concentration, tasks that are best done with a mind focused solely on the task.

Then, when the task is done, sit back and bask in a sea of interruptions, until you get to the next time you have set aside for real work.

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