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

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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.


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