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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Life in the age of continuous partial attention

By Dick Hirsch

“Do I have your undivided attention?” asked Mr. George, the visiting marketing consultant, as he surveyed the room. Seated there was a mixed group of salespeople, gathered together to be enlightened about new and supposedly magical sales techniques, designed to keep the company busy and prosperous and to add to the commission checks of the sales staff.

“I need your complete attention,” he stressed, “because this is critical. May I have your attention?”

Everyone nodded in the affirmative. Of course, I nodded, too, although I was dividing my time between staring out the window at the passing traffic and inscribing meaningless doodles in my notebook. But I swear I heard every word spoken by Mr. George and, more importantly, understood the significance of his message
I was experienced at doing more than one thing at a time. It was a skill I perfected in childhood, when I spent time listening and reading at the same time. I started listening to the radio, old programs like “Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy,” or “Gangbusters,” while reading the latest issue of Batman comics. Years later I modified that skill to apply it to television viewing. I could watch programs like “Mr. Ed” or “Car 54, Where are You?” while studying for the final exam in American Lit 302. Observers insisted that I wasn’t concentrating, but I believed that I was. I never realized it at the time, but I had become quite accomplished at routine juggling, doing more than one thing at a time.

Fast forward to the present, a time when the number of available distractions of every description has grown beyond all expectations, with the promise of still more to come. There are those who claim they cannot manage their affairs unless they are involved with multiple tasks.

Perhaps I should mention that I like to write with the radio in the background, as it is at this moment. I find total silence distracting. But to show you how little I know about this subject, I wasn’t even certain whether it was multi-tasking (two words with a hyphen) or multitasking (just one word, coined recently enough to not be included in my unabridged dictionary). The favored opinion is multitasking, one word, to explain the activity of a person, either on the job or just fiddling around, who is hyper-busy, engaged with more than one thing at a time. I first heard the term through the courtesy of my older grandson, a specialist in simultaneous instant messaging, TV watching and cell phone conversing.

This is an approach that has been growing in popularity, especially among the young, The most obvious example can be seen in the number of people who use the cell phone while doing other things: walking down the street, typing on the computer, shopping, pumping gas, using the lavatory...the list of situations is unlimited. This syndrome has been described as an affliction of the Internet age and I suppose that is accurate. Twenty years ago the Internet was somewhere between a concept and a figment, and there were fewer distractions.

With that being the case, it’s important to note the most perceptive definition I have heard of multitasking. It is simply this: “continuous partial attention.”

Mr. George demanded---or at least requested---full attention, as did Mr. Snow in chemistry class and Miss Sherman, the Spanish teacher. Whether they ever attained it doesn’t matter; they knew their listeners would learn more if their minds were unfettered with extraneous matter.

Once multitasking became a popular style it didn’t take long for the psychologists to start analyzing the results. They found that people were proud of their ability to balance various assignments, all at the same time. Those people generally felt there was no reduction in the quality of the work product that was their primary assignment.

But the tests seemed to show otherwise, that multitasking slows the person down and increases the chances of mistakes. Despite having billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, the brain has a limitation, its inability to concentrate on two things at once, according to René Marois, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University.

The wisdom of all this may be lost on the most active practitioners, the young, but the advice is to limit yourself, especially when driving or working on a complex issue. In my case, I have now found it possible to occasionally respond to a comment or question from the other side of the room while doing a crossword puzzle and watching a ball game.



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