How to bring focus, awareness, and judgment back to our multitasking lives.

Distracted By Maggie Jackson Prometheus Books 320 pp. $25.95

Years before multitasking became a household word and a supposed badge of honor, a retired professor of theology, an acquaintance of mine, offered his opinion on the subject. Convinced of the folly and ultimate inefficiency of trying to do several things at once, he made a case for a more focused approach to life.

He said simply, “When you wash the dishes, wash the dishes.”

That sage advice, applied to a multitude of situations, could fit neatly in the pages of Distracted, Maggie Jackson’s persuasive warning about the long-term consequences of a lack of attention. Multitasking, she argues, stands as one symbol of lives that are increasingly fragmented, producing an attention-deficit culture.

Jackson’s premise is simple: “The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention – the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress.” This disintegration, she warns, “may come at great cost to ourselves and to society.”
“Pay attention,” we tell our children. Yet they continue to be lured by the siren call of high-tech temptations lurking at every turn.

The land of distraction, Jackson calls it. In a world filled with split screens and sound bites, time for reflection and focus is increasingly lost. Who can be surprised that TV viewers remember 10 percent fewer facts about a news story when a crawl clutters the screen?

Distraction also becomes the enemy of creativity. McThinking has its limits.

Other examples abound. Forty percent of those in Generation Y text message while driving. Students do homework as they watch TV, listen to iPods, and chat with friends on cellphones. At the same time, studies show that many high school students are unable to synthesize information or express complex thoughts.

Work gets fragmented as well. Workers typically change tasks every three minutes. Once distracted, they take about 25 minutes to return to an interrupted task. Interruptions eat up more than two hours of an average worker’s day.

Families also pay a steep price. In half of American homes with children under 6, the television remains on all or most of the time. Under those circumstances, parent-child interactions decline by 25 percent, and children’s play becomes abbreviated and less focused.

“They begin to look like junior multitaskers, moving from toy to toy, forgetting what they were doing when they were interrupted by an interesting snippet of the show,” Jackson states.

Our fragmented culture even influences the kind of food Americans eat. “We need handheld, bite-size, and dripless food because we are eating on the run – all day long,” Jackson writes. The family dinner may be an endangered species.

As people increasingly shape their lives around portability – of contacts, knowledge, entertainment, nourishment – the way they sense and pay attention to the world changes. Too often, in Jackson’s view, we fail to notice our surroundings as we hurry through the day.

Still, all is not as gloomy as her subtitle, “The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age,” would suggest. She defines a dark age as a turning point in history – a crossroads where a civilization can either falter or encourage great innovation.

Describing herself as optimistic, Jackson calls for a renaissance of attention. This involves honing three sets of skills – focus, awareness, and judgment. To skeptics, she offers reassurance that attention can be trained, taught, and shaped.

She also sees small, encouraging signs of progress. Some companies now provide an unwired room where people can go and think or brainstorm without interruption. And IBM has created Think Fridays, with no meetings, conference calls, or e-mail all day.

Jackson is no Luddite or foe of technology. She cites the positive aspects of flexible careers and “our wondrous, liberating mobility.” Yet she cautions that if Americans are to thrive in a digital age, they must place attention front and center. She regards attention as crucial to understanding this new environment and the key to dealing with technology, speed, and split focus.

Jackson’s wide-ranging research grows dense at times, but it adds up to an original treatment of an important subject. Her message bears particular relevance to parents and teachers, who hold the power to help shape the attitudes of younger generations.

Ultimately, a more thoughtful approach to life has profound effects on human relationships. Jackson calls attention irreplaceable – the greatest gift one person can give to another.

It’s an idea worth thinking about in a nonmultitasking moment, perhaps while quietly washing the dishes or driving without a cellphone in hand.

Marilyn Gardner is a Monitor staff writer.

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