Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Attention Defficit and Focus

Last night I found this article on the NYTimes site. A bunch of neuroscientists "unplugged" themselves for several days and sailed down the river together as a retreat and as the prelude to further research. (Read article here.)

They didn't come to any particular conclusions, because this wasn't scientifically conducted, but they did have some interesting discussions. Particularly in the realm of being able to focus verses being able to multi-task.

Perhaps I found the article striking because I've only recently come to my own conclusion that multi-tasking makes everything take longer. While writing my morning pages (yes, I still try to practice the Artist's Way), I realized that if I did the pages how you're supposed to, and wrote three pages start to finish without getting up and without letting myself do other tasks, I could finish them in about 30-35 minutes. On days when I took my iPod touch with me and checked email, surfed the web, looked up how to spell words, checked my calendar, sent reminders, I spent 60-80 minutes trying to write three pages. More than double the realized time.

Also, when I got up from those morning pages, I didn't feel particularly focused or purposeful. On days like today, when I didn't let myself check my email repeatedly, and focused only on the page, I stood up and felt ... well ... I felt smarter. Like I had a purpose for the day and I knew what I needed to do and how to do it.

No where in the article does anyone say technology is bad or that we need to fully unplug. What they're discussing is the notion that the format our technology takes is cutting into our mental productivity. It's not email, texting, or instant messaging that's cutting into out attention span, it's the expectation of email.

This was my "aha!" moment.

Whenever I let myself check the iPod for email, etc., my pages took longer to write. Most days I didn't read the email I checked on. Just looked to see what was there. Then looked back again every 15-30 minutes to see what else was there. Often there wasn't new email, but I'd already been derailed from the task of writing morning pages, so I was off on another task for the next few minutes.

I'm now reevaluating how I work on the computer. If I'm on the computer, my email is open. And, right now, like most days, I have 14 web pages open at once. These are things I started to look at but didn't want to read right then, so I left them open to get back to later. They're multi-tasking processes that are spinning their wheels and not accomplishing anything. Frequently I get overwhelmed and frustrated with the amount of pages(tabs) I have open and I have to walk away from the computer or shut them all down. Now I'm thinking that the key might be to not have that many open in the first place. To force myself to finish a task without getting sidetracked into opening a new page in a new tab.

It's also making me more sympathetic to my students. I'm still not amused by shortened attention spans in the classroom, but I'm more sympathetic to the fact that they're no longer being conditioned to sit through long discussions, or have long discussions without allowing technology to interrupt those discussions (lecture, or in-class discussion that they participate in) and rupture their focus.

Thoughts? Suspicions? Anecdotes? How often do you check your email? How often do you check it when you're not at your desk/computer? Do you think it's working, not working? Is there a way around it or is the way through it?

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