Newsweek recently ran an article describing President Obama as our nation’s first “Blackberry President”. The article relates how we have all become dependant on communications technology and confirms what most of us already knew – this flood of new technology is having a huge impact on the way people think and interact. From texting and instant messaging to email alerts and telephone ring tones, a constant barrage of technology based “interruptions” is eroding our ability to concentrate.
As a result, our performance on tasks that require steady focus and attention deteriorates. In its most severe form, interruption generated errors have been thought to be a major cause of several plane and train accidents. On a more everyday level, our children and students find it increasingly difficult to read their required chapter for homework or complete that five paragraph essay they were assigned this morning. They can often stay on task only by interacting with their friends via computer video chat, instant messaging or the newest fad, Blackberry Based Messaging (BBM). Instant communication with your community requires just a few simple clicks. Silent, uninterrupted contemplation is fast becoming a lost art.
Interruptions have become so commonplace that we also don’t think twice about interrupting each other either. One study stated that the average worker only spends around 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted. We’ve even become conditioned to welcoming the interruptions. What’s the first thing most people do when they get a new cell phone? They customize their seductive call to action – the ring tone. When we’re not being interrupted we’re still so conditioned to thinking in short bursts that it’s difficult to maintain concentration for any length of time. How many of us check for messages and email every few minutes even when there isn’t any indication that one has arrived?
What can we do and what can we suggest for our children and students? Some simple recommendations include:
1. Know when to turn off your ring tone. If you have a meeting or need to read something that requires attention, start by turning off the ring tone on your phone. If your child has homework, suggest that they either turn off their cell phone altogether or at least place it somewhere where they won’t be tempted to use it.
2. Turn off automatic audible alerts and pop ups for emails and instant messages. Check them when it’s convenient for you rather than allowing them to constantly divert your attention.
3. Establish a pattern of using your technology at “coarse breakpoints”. These are defined as natural breaks in concentration – the completion of a task, the end of a paragraph etc. Interruptions that fall right in the middle of a thought or task make it difficult to return and continue that process. Research shows that it’s far easier to return to your task if your interruption falls in a more natural breakpoint.
Asking kids to just “turn everything off” may yield results … if it can be accomplished. Speaking as someone that uses technology at every turn, going “cold turkey” certainly can make you feel like Odysseus tied to the mast. A solid recommendation is simply to take control. Manage your use of technology. Use it at times that are convenient for you and don’t allow the technology to constantly redirect your attention. Turn off alerts and decide when you will check your messages. Technology will make us more productive and improve our quality of life if only it is used appropriately.