Friday, February 20, 2009

Distraction overload, and continuous partial attention

The minute our plane pulled up to the gate, I pulled out my phone to text the kids that we'd made it safely, what with flying over Cuba and all. No coverage. That's okay; we're probably just in a bad spot...

Down the long hallway to the lines of hundreds of other tourists waiting to have their passports stamped. No coverage. Hmmm.

Down to the basement to collect our luggage, out the door to the parking lot, to a taxi and along 80 km of ruggedly beautiful coastline. Still. No. Coverage. Anywhere. Ever. ACK!

Surely when we get to our hotel....? Nope.

After reaching for my phone repeatedly and finding ZERO bars there, I began to see that my addiction was stronger and deeper than I'd imagined. What? Not being able to call my kids, at will? Or worse, not being able to be called by them, at will? Unthinkable! What about all those emails that kept me company by their constant buzz-then-chime? None.

Of course there was a land line at the hotel, which only holds 48 guests at full capacity. Grandmother and Granddaddy had that number in case of emergency, and we would be quite easy to find, lounging on the balcony of our bungalow. But what if...? I sensed a moment of panic.

When we could not get internet connection the first couple of days, I felt even more cut off. Could we make it? Gasp!

But then...

After a couple of days of going off cell phone "cold turkey" (not to mention having a room with no clock, no TV, and no land line), I began to enjoy my new freedom (and here I thought having all those things governing my life was what gave me so much freedom!). Most of the time we didn't know what time it was. We read books and magazines - cover to cover (ask me the last time I did that?). I journaled. We went to bed when we were tired and got up when we were rested (and still took afternoon naps). We ate when we were hungry (and then we ate some more). We talked.

I started to unwind. I began to rest.

By our last day there, I knew it was time to get back to reality. I couldn't take with me the ocean breezes, the exotically brilliant flowers or the unusual birds. But how could I bring some of this - this unhurriedness - back with me?

Wouldn't you know, at the airport on the way home, I picked up the February 16 edition of Newsweek. It had an interesting article about The BlackBerry's Many Distractions. (And while the author blasts BlackBerry, I'd say iPhone ranks right up there on the Evil Distraction Quotient.) Here's the gist:
The cognitive and social effects of the BlackBerry on its 21 million users aren't so unambiguously beneficial. So while legions of BlackBerry fans cheer Obama's success in keeping his, insisting it makes users more productive and connected, experts in cognitive psychology and in human-machine interactions who study pop-ups, e-mail alerts, calendar reminders and instant messaging—the most intrusive and ubiquitous pre-BlackBerry technologies—have two things to say: distraction overload, and continuous partial attention.

For whatever the virtues of a handheld, there is no question that, depending how you use it, you risk never focusing exclusively on any thought or perception for long and never being able to work straight through to completion on anything.
I've had a BlackBerry for years, only because I inherited the first one from my husband when he got a new one for work. I do not have internet on it (I refuse!) but I absolutely LOVE having all my contacts and my calendar with me at all times (no more notes written on scraps of paper to be copied to the family calendar or having to wait to reply to emails if I'm stuck in a carpool line). But at what cost?
People take about 15 minutes to productively resume a challenging task when they are interrupted even by something as innocuous as an e-mail alert, scientists at Microsoft Research and the University of Illinois found in a 2007 study.

Okay, so let's bring this to the reality of home. We are already interrupted 500 times a day by bad diapers, items being accidentally flushed down the toilet or broken by well-meaning small hands, by spats over whose turn it is, by phone calls, people at the door, dogs barking, and the dryer buzzing. Add to that a few email alerts, instant messages, text messages and calendar reminders. Um, at fifteen minutes' "recoup" time per interruption, that adds up to an entire day saying, "Now where was I?"

And about continuous partial attention:
Continuous partial attention is actually a misnomer. Computer scientists use it, but most psychologists disdain it because what seems like partial attention or multitasking is actually rapid-fire switching of attention among tasks. In that state of mind, says computer scientist Mary Czerwinski of Microsoft Research, you don't process information as fully and are not using your frontal lobe effectively.
There is nothing that bugs me more than to see kids (my own included) playing games on their phones when they are bored. What ever happened to daydreaming, which "is a propitious mental state for creativity, insight and problem solving. Truly novel solutions and ideas emerge when the brain brings together unrelated facts and thoughts."

Sigh. I did a lot of daydreaming in Jamaica. Watching clouds. Listening to the waves. Wondering what kind of flower that was. I did not find any "truly novel solutions" to anything, but it still felt so good!

It seems like an uphill battle, this tide of constant interruption in the perpetual state of partial attention. Cell phones, email, and social media, including blogs such as this one, it seems, are here to stay. Can we keep them all at bay, especially that entourage of infernally annoying minutia included in 99% of Facebook status or Twitter updates (You really don't want to get me started on that one! Do we really care that someone just defrosted their freezer? I think not.)? Can we teach our kids how to take the good and leave behind the bad, so that maybe they will have a longer attention span than those in one study of IT workers who worked only 11 minutes before being interrupted?

Hmmm. Lots of food for thought. I will say that after I read the entire article, I turned off all email and message alerts on my phone and computer (My kids' texts DO still buzz me, I can still see that red light blinking, though!). I couldn't quite part with the calendar alerts yet, either, but maybe some day.

It's a baby step, but if it brings me a few moments of daydreaming, I think it will be worth it.


PS - I still need Lisa P. in California to email me so I can get that fabulous prize to her!!


Stephanie said...

Were you writing to me? :) So timely ... isn't that how God always works?

E. Tyler Rowan said...

I believe that resorts don't put clocks in the rooms intentionally. It's really quite liberating, isn't it?!

I also have a loathing for facebook status and twitter updates. Like I need more useless things to waste my time on, such as summing up in one sentence what I'm doing right now. Maybe I should just permanently put "being a wife/mommy/housekeeper/ministry leader at all times, for all times." LOL!

Anonymous said...

I can completely identify with this! When I lived abroad, I didn't speak the language well enough to buy a cell phone so I went without for a long time...and then I began to appreciate my freedom, so I never did buy one.

It's such a liberating thing lol.

Emily said...

Ooh... conviction. I went on a retreat with my roommates last semester where the pastor spoke on that- not the Blackberry specifically :-), but the idea of partial attention. He said, "Attention is one of the greatest ways to show love." Ouch! How often am I JUST where I am/with who I am?

Thanks for the post :-) Glad you had fun!!

se7en said...

Wow, what a brilliant comment on our lives and how far we have come from being able to sit and do anything without pause, even changing a diaper gets interrupted! Thank you, really food for thought.

Michele said...

Lots to think about...especially since I have a tiny little Blackberry addiction

Megan@SortaCrunchy said...

I don't have a Blackberry or any device like that, but I do have a wicked email obsession. I can completely see how an interupption to one task can take 15 minutes to recoup from. And I also worry about the invasion of technology into the minds and free time of our children (heck, me, too!). I want more daydreaming and less entertainment - but I guess it's going to have to start with me.

I am so conflicted.

Great article and powerful post!

Lindsay said...

ooo gotta love a distraction free vacation. I am sure it was tough but at least you had the ocean to listen to :-)

Shaun Smithson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jen @ Rolling Through Looneyville said...

Nice post Katherine... I'm not 100% sure what book it was in, but the main guy said that he aimed to be completely present in whatever he did. (Ad-libbed).

Anyway, It's SO hard sometimes to focus on my kids for kid time and focus on my chores during down time. One thing at a time sure gets things done in a better and more timely manner, but it's HARD! Working on it. :)

On the by and by, I'm not picking up your feed in Bloglines. It had been so long without seeing a post from you that I hopped over directly and found that I missed A LOT. Not sure if I'm the only one.

*That last comment was me, but I was signed in under my husband's name

Anonymous said...

You have been awarded the Lemonade Award by me on my site! Why the lemonade award? It is given as appreciation for those people who have shown a great attitude or gratitude this week no matter what the circumstances happen to be. (Or you made me laugh or nod my head in agreement!)

You have always kept it real: both on your blog and in real life. You are a wonderful woman who deserves to be told often how much you are appreciated!

Anonymous said...

I am so guilty of having too many distractions. That iphone is so handy and at the same time it is always beckoning me. I don't open the computer as often anymore now that I have it but I keep the stupid phone in my pocket and check it all the time! I'm not sure I'm ready to give it up though... Definitely something to think about.

Rachel Anne said...

Ironically, I read this post while checking my email AS I WAS DRYING MY HAIR. What does that say about my email addiction? Guilty, guilty.

Suddenly, a certain teenager still living in the house has a deep and abiding interest in Facebook. I see him checking it WHILE doing homework. Your post is giving me the backbone to put the kaibosh on that before it gets any worse, or begins affecting the grades.

I'd love to get a copy of that article. Is it still on the Newsstands or was it last week's edition?

BTW, welcome back....lunch this week??? Email me. :)

Cassandra said...

I loved this post. Truly timely as i am starting to loath so much of my technology right now. i see how much i truly am not getting are so right!!! But...i would like to know how you get email on your blackberry but not internet....they told me I couldnt do right not i have nothing on mine...I would like email only too!!

Katherine@Raising Five said...

Hi Cassandra,

Our carrier (t*mobile) has a "data only" or "Blackberry plan" which includes email without internet (how they do this is beyond my non-techie brain!!!). You might check with your provider. Ours is $9.99 a month.

Sweet Joni said...

Greetings :)
Thanks so much for posting this! And how so TRUE you've spoken :) I so totally AGREE with you on everything you mention!

*Note: blogger blog is under construction (as is my life) but feel free to see