(Eighth in a series on working from home.)
So, am I a loser if I can’t take in a lecture, text a friend, and check my email all at the same time? Everyone else seems to be doing that.
I’ve always had an instinctive sense that when I try to do more than one thing, concentration falters and I suffer an angsty discomfort with no good result.
Turns out that communication research is in my court, and it has been established since the middle of the 20th century that divided attention leads to compromised retention. A Cornell study repeatedly demonstrated that students who browsed on their laptops during lectures performed worse on tests than their classmates who kept them closed. (Hembrooke &Gay, 2003)
Apparently, we’re not actually capable of focusing on more than one thing at a time, and energy is lost in the effort of the switch.
I often suspect that I am on the receiving end of multitasking innefficiency. I’ll get emails in which only one of my two questions is addressed, even though I wrote “2 Questions” on the subject line, and numbered the questions in bold.
Or someone on the phone takes about two seconds too long to reply. You can just see them peeling their eyes off some screen long enough to formulate a minimal answer. I often get the sense that people are half-listening or skim-reading.
Worst of all is to be in the sole company of someone who is so into their phone that you don’t feel fully visible to them – like one of those holograms on the Disney Haunted House ride. Many of us who work at home are in danger of preferring the company of an operating system to those pesky flesh-and-blood humans, who are so much harder to control.
My guess is that these last few decades will go down in history as the age of social geekiness, before norms were established around the use of technology that kept people from living on desert islands of screen addiction.
“Remember how dad used to check his phone as soon as it pinged, even when he was reading us a story?” a scarred 30-something will ask his sister.
“Yeah, and mom never actually saw us kick a goal, ’cause she was always texting,” she’ll reply, and they’ll shake their heads at the bad old days.
Before that day, there will be nation-wide 12-step tech-addiction meetings. People will stand and announce, “Hi, I’m (Aiden/Emma/Liam) and I’m a techaholic, and my life has become unmanageable.” Everyone will put their devices in the middle of a circle, and will courageously endure the agony of separation in an odd but comforting environment of human support.
To avoid all that, it helps to plan our work in blocks, where we decide ahead of time to stay focused on one thing. Julie Morgenstern, who wrote, “Time Management from the Inside Out,” advises that we build screen breaks into our schedules, starting the day with one at least an hour long, where we’re free to do deeper, focused work before getting distracted.
That sounds like a good beginning towards living in such a way that we value people more than things, and work from an intentional center rather than a reactionary swatting at interruptions all day long.
Maybe when we look up from our screens every so often to rest our eyes, we should also take a few deep breaths, and ask ourselves, “Am I paying attention to who and what matters most?”