The idea that wandering attention could be beneficial has recently gained traction, at least in the media. But there’s a perpendicular strain that’s gotten attention in recent years, one that seeks to balance the constant buzz of connectivity with making time to think.
A typical afternoon in the newsroom of The State Journal-Register brings a flurry of distractions.Police scanners are dispensing terse instructions. Phones are ringing. A colleague is listening to a cable news network, all day every day. Someone is pounding his keyboard like it insulted his mother. The smell of popcorn wafts from a nearby desk, penetrating first my nose and then my mind, like an olfactory strobe light in a windowless room. What was I writing about? Oh, right, distraction. Last week, I wrote about the modern problem of the unwatched Netflix rental and asked, “Is life too short for ‘Rashomon’?” I wrote that we sometimes have a hard time squaring “a slowly unfolding, subtitled film and our always-on, Twitter-addled attention spans.” My friend Kiyoshi Martinez picked up on that phrase and offered a thoughtful response, recounting his own difficulty finding the time to read books and watch movies he’s purchased. “It’s become harder for me to sit down and commit time to something for several hours at a time,” Martinez wrote on his Tumblr.com blog. “And yet, I can sit in front of my computer for hours and scroll through Twitter, Tumblr and refresh the Drudge Report.” Participation in the social networking site Twitter.com has enriched my life, showing me stories I’d otherwise not have seen and helping me to understand the world in new ways through the 140-character aphorisms of some of the brilliant people I follow. Yet if someone had been keeping track of how much time I’ve spent on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and the rest of the Internet, instead of, say, reading books, I’m afraid I’d be embarrassed at the results. Those of us whose daily life includes a barrage of e-mails and phone calls and stories and questions are already primed to frequently shift attention. It’s actually a job skill for a police reporter to be able to write a story while listening for anything interesting on the scanners, or a sports editor to keep an eye on multiple games at once. The idea that wandering attention could be beneficial has recently gained traction, at least in the media. In May, New York Magazine published a story titled “In Defense of Distraction.” And I heard a discussion on satellite radio in which the evolutionary basis for distractibility was explored — if a group of cavemen were sitting around a fire, rapt by a storyteller, the one who was distracted by the sound of an approaching saber-tooth tiger would be a valuable member of the tribe. But there’s a perpendicular strain that’s gotten attention in recent years, one that seeks to balance the constant buzz of connectivity with making time to think. That line of thinking had a moment in the sun last year when a conversation between then-candidate Barack Obama and British Conservative Party leader David Cameron was picked up by a microphone, with the men seemingly unaware. It was late July, and Cameron asked Obama if he would have any time off during the campaign. “I have not. I am going to take a week in August,” Obama said, according to The Associated Press. “But I agree with you that somebody, somebody who had worked in the White House who — not Clinton himself, but somebody who had been close to the process — said that should we be successful, that actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be. ...” “These guys just chalk your diary up,” Cameron said. “Right. ... In 15 minute increments and ...” “We call it the dentist waiting room. You have to scrap that because you’ve got to have time,” Cameron said. Merlin Mann, who writes about the strategy and philosophy of attention and creativity on 43folders.com, said he was encouraged and inspired by the exchange. “If people as busy as these two guys ... can make time to rise above the noise, it’s hard to imagine why each of us wouldn’t want to occasionally unchalk our diary enough to try something similar,” he wrote. When President Obama was elected, it was widely reported that he fought to continue using his BlackBerry, and won. But I suspect many so-called knowledge workers — desk jockeys, less charitably — would relish the opportunity to shed e-mail altogether. In my case, I could bid farewell to the endless requests for coverage in A&E; national public relations flacks who seem to have no understanding that, if it’s not local, it’s probably not going to be covered by a mid-size paper like the SJ-R; and the endless stream of ads for ... never mind, probably best not to get into that. So we do what we can to cope. I’ve gained control of my inbox by following Mann’s “Inbox Zero” philosophy (www.43folders.com/izero — it’ll change your life). I recently disconnected my personal e-mail from my BlackBerry, hoping I can rediscover the once-a-day kick of receiving e-mail I used to feel when I got my first address in the mid-’90s. My friend Martinez also wrote about some of the steps he’s taken to prevent his attention span from dwindling even further. “I’ve begun to read more during my commute to work. I print out longer articles to read on the Blue Line and keep them in my messenger bag. I’ve subscribed to a few magazines and started making it a point to read them cover-to-cover, starting with the features,” Martinez wrote. “I’m doing this because I have a concern that if I can’t rewire my brain to concentrate on something for an extended period, I may eventually find myself not wanting to learn something that takes time, or enjoy films of a higher intellectual order. That scares me.” It scares me, too. That’s why I’m going to go home and start ... hold on, I just got an e-mail ... What was I talking about? Brian Mackey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s also often distracted at twitter.com/brianmackey.