One of my favorite subjects is the problem of shortened attention spans and the fallacy of multitasking in the digital age. Tech competes for our eyes and ears perhaps thousands of times each day. The average worker only gets a few moments to focus on something without being interrupted. Even lovers look at smartphones during intimate conversations.
This is not a world I want to live in, and I bet you don’t, either. With rare exceptions, multitasking isn’t multitasking at all — rather, it’s rapid task switching. Plenty of studies show (including my own research conducted with Carnegie Mellon University) that people who are doing two things at once simply underperform at both tasks.
Into this complex subject steps Annie Murphy Paul, one of the great science writers of our time. We were lucky to have Annie on our latest episode of “So, Bob…” She’s done extensive research into the science of being smart, and if you listen to her, I believe you will actually feel smarter. You will definitely feel that she is both a great speaker and a great listener. In case you can’t listen at this moment, I’ve included a couple of highlights below — but when you can, please listen to the podcast. As long as I’m not interrupting something.
ANNIE: One thing that we get away from in the use of technology is the body. We become this disembodied head that you know, is just uh looking at a screen. And so I find that when I talk to someone that I’m close to or, even when I interview someone I try to be in my own body and aware of the feelings and the sensations that are coming up in me as I talk to that other person and I try to assume a state of being both calm and alert and being open to whatever I’m feeling from the other person. And that’s the basis of, of empathy, um, when you are using your own body as an instrument to understand the other person.
B: I teared up when she said that. This idea that listening to someone, listening to them, not just with your ears but with your whole physical presence is such a beautiful thing. And as she said it, I also went through this quick inventory of the recent times when I felt that and the recent times when I haven’t and it was a pretty stark thought.
ANNIE: Looking at several streams of information or entertainment while students are studying is, seems almost universal. My own children’s elementary school classes do it and I know that the students, the college students that I’ve taught do it and they all think they can do it well, and that’s the rub because we don’t have a very good sense of our own proficiency at uh paying attention and we may not be aware, but it is the case that when we’re trying to pay attention to many things at once, we work more slowly, we, we make more errors and we don’t perform at the same level that we would if we were paying attention to just one thing. So I think in terms of what teachers and parents and others who are concerned about kids should be thinking about it’s, it’s instilling in them the habit of mono tasking of just doing one thing at a time.
ANNIE: The idea is to have an expanding length of time between tech breaks. So it might be 15 minutes at the start and then half an hour and then 45 minutes. And, uh, the idea behind it is first of all, to break the habit of checking every 30 seconds or every minute and sort of lengthen that amount of time that kids are able to go without checking or even thinking of checking.
ALIA: Annie is talking about tech breaks. Like, putting your phone away for 15 minutes at a time, then checking it for like a minute, and then putting it away. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
BOB: So reading a book might actually distract you enough, you don’t need social media anymore for at least a little while.
ANNIE: Yes, and the fact that paper books have no notifications and no dings and beeps or anything, it’s actually makes it a superior form of equipment. And I think that that was something humans got right a long time ago.