Contributor: Morgan Motzel
Work and Life is a two-hour radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday from 7 pm to 9 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
Stew Friedman spoke with Maggie Jackson, former foreign correspondent for Boston Globe covering work-life issues and author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. On Work and Life Jackson explained the steep cost of technology in fragmenting our collective attention and how society can get back on track by challenging norms of busyness and multi-tasking.
Following are edited excerpts of Friedman’s conversation with Jackson:
Stew Friedman: In your book, you spoke about how the technologists or inventors in our society have one view of what they’ve brought into the world, but the people who actually use it have a different experience. What about the Internet specifically?
Maggie Jackson: The internet started out as a small defense-related mechanism for people to communicate with one another, but as we know, it has grown into the behemoth that we are experiencing today. I think the Internet is an obvious example of how technologies have become so ingrained in our lives that we don’t actually see them anymore. This is a critical realization for us to have – today, who actually looks at an electric light bulb every evening, for example, and says, “Whoa, look at that?” With technology, there’s somewhat of a perceptual fade over time where we cease to see these things anymore once the novelty has worn off. That is an important issue for us to grapple with, because once we stop seeing it, we stop looking at it critically. We might see the content coming at us and hear the beeping, but do we really take a step back and think through what are the pros and cons, how am I going to live with this technology, what can I really do with it? We have developed some very simple ways of dealing with technology, but I think now we need to become more sophisticated in how we think about our interaction with these new products. This fade is an inevitable part of the historical process, but it’s also that is really urgent for people to grapple with because there is such a steep cost to misusing technology.
SF: What do you see as the primary costs to humanity and to individuals in taking for granted the new tools that are so much a part of our lives now?
MJ: There are so many. I actually like to talk about it as “technological excesses,” because I don’t blame the technology. I don’t think that we should get rid of it all, and I don’t think that we have to go backwards. I personally have a lot to do with technology, and I love the way it works for me. It has changed our world for the better. One of the steep costs, however, has to do with the way we utilize our attention during our interactions with technology. In the average workplace, for example, people switch tasks every three minutes throughout the day. That’s enormous, and those switch costs lead to slower and less efficient work. We end up doing more trivial tasks, and ultimately we’re more stressed and more frustrated. That fragmentation of attention that we’re seeing all around us creates a tremendously steep cost to things like engaging with a question, wrestling a messy problem or an ill-structured situation to the ground, and really sticking with challenges. In this country, for example, there have been tremendous longitudinal studies done on creativity. , Across the board creativity has fallen, right from kindergarten to adulthood. Fluency, originality, expressiveness, and imagination are all slipping downwards, particularly in the last ten years. But the score that has gone down the most is something called elaboration – the ability to put flesh on an idea, the ability to wrestle with it, and the ability to stick with it to the end. The decline in elaboration, combined with the fragmentation of attention, both reverberate in our social and our intellectual lives and are demonstrated consequences of the way we’re living. So yes, there are enormous costs, but I am still hopeful and optimistic too.
SF: This fragmentation of attention and the declining capacities of people in our society to stay with an idea or a problem are things that many people have identified and are clearly serious concerns. Let’s talk about solutions – what are the most important things we need to be thinking about to address these problems of the modern age? You suggested earlier that we need to become more mindful about the choices that we’re making. Can you say more about what can people do to combat the “coming of the dark age,” as is stated in the subtitle of your book? What do we do to fight that erosion and keep the light?
MJ: I’d like to tie in one small mention here to the idea of questioning. I think that when we’re able to see and think about technology – and we’re not so busy that we just fall into bed and sleep with the smart phone – but when we really take a look at what we’re doing, then we are able to get on the road of control, mastery, and understanding of the role of technology in our lives, and then moving forward to chart the course. Related to that, I think, is the issue of questioning a lot of the different social norms and value systems that go under the radar. For example, what are we teaching kids about what success looks like? The image is often a person who is so busy that they’re only half-listening to those around them, a person who’s got their nose in two or three different smart phones, and a person who’s generally distracted from the people and the issues that matter. We really need to question that norm.
SF: What do you mean by questioning that norm? How would you do that?
MJ: I think we need to talk about it and put these issues on the table. For example, one of the hot points or “lightning rod” moments in any corporation is meetings. There have been many discussions surrounding the rules of meeting etiquette in recent years. For example, how do people feel if they’re presenting and no one is looking at them? How can we get on the same page if that is something we want to value? How do we want to think about meetings? I don’t think we really actually talk candidly about these sorts of things right now.
SF: It seems like a pretty uncomfortable thing to talk about. I was just at a restaurant, and sitting next to me there was a middle-aged couple with two teenage kids. While they were waiting for dessert, the wife and the two kids were all just looking directly at their smart phones, and the dad was just kind of staring out into space. I thought to myself, that’s an interesting tableau – there seems to be something wrong with this picture. Maggie, what is he to do? What are people to do to intervene to change or to challenge these norms?
MJ: One of the best ways we can do that is to demarcate. I think we have a love-hate relationship with boundaries of any kind, perhaps because, to us, the boundaries represent the industrial age. Today, we think of home and work as being integrated, and that’s true in many good ways, but I think that we’ve really torn down the boundaries between the physical places of where we are, so work and home aren’t distinct. And yet, a boundary is kind of a good limit and really almost a way to embrace having priorities – a way to demonstrate what’s truly important. Think, for example, of the curfew for the teenager, or your job description at work, or the Industrial Age invention of the weekend – these are all boundaries. Boundaries are really terrific ways to focus, and your focus is actually a boundary. I’d love to talk a little bit more about the different types of attention we have to utilize, but one important type of attention is called focus. Scientifically, it’s called orienting. Focus is really about boundary-making. They call it the spotlight of your mind – what’s in and what’s out of your focus, and that’s what you’re spending time on. I believe boundary-making is an essential thing for us to start to bring back.
In Jackson’s conversation with Stew, she discusses how individuals need to challenge the cultural norms surrounding constant distraction by demonstrating the personal and organizational benefits of focus. Influential leaders can champion these positive behaviors as “rebels of slow” and “athletes of attention.” Do you know someone in your work, family, or community who places a strong emphasis on focus and attention? What specific practices do they engage in that are evidence of this priority and what outcomes do you observe in their tasks and relationships? Join us in the comments below with your experiences and reflections.
Join Work and Life on Tuesday, May 13 at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Neil Blumenthal with Nilofer Merchant. Visit Work and Life for our schedule of future guests.
About the Author
Morgan Motzel is an undergraduate junior in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at Penn focusing on Management and Latin America.