I’ve decided that most people have attention-deficit disorder, especially as I watch them navigate their days. No matter their age, many seem to think they’re deeply engaged when talking on cell phones to children, family, friends and business associates in airports, hotel lobbies or other public places. Yet I wonder if they’ve truly, meaningfully connected, and are discussing issues with depth and understanding. Most simply move through the day, checking things off their to-do list, convinced that multitasking brings success at work and happiness at home. I believe most people have shortened their attention spans to where they can’t focus on anything for long or with the depth needed for critical thought and decision-making.
Attention-deficit disorder has become common at work. Some call it multitasking, but these folks look more distracted than engaged, and only get involved intermittently in group activities. Just look around a meeting room and you’ll see laptops open with people engaged at various stages. Some intently read or tap out email responses. Others work on something while “monitoring” the discussions. Still others look at their phone to see what’s happening elsewhere. If you’re in a meeting where, from start to finish, over half the attendees are engaged, leaning forward and making eye contact, it’s a remarkable event. I consider a meeting great if half the group stays involved beginning to end.
I once read that when a laptop or phone dings, rings or clings, its owner will be distracted 32 minutes on average. Think about that. If a workday lasts eight hours, and you also take lunch, a break or two, and a few phone calls of any length, four to five disruptions make it difficult to capture 30 minutes of productive, uninterrupted work in a day. I don’t know about you, but I need uninterrupted time blocks to analyze, review, plan strategies and/or evaluate significant issues, especially those requiring reading and comprehension.
So far, I’ve been talking about technological interruptions and distractions. Another issue has just begun to cause potentially greater problems: a dramatic change in how people read information.
A recent Washington Post article by Michael Rosenwald described Web surfers (who isn’t a Web surfer these days?) as people with online commitment problems. These folks see a catchy title or phrase, click on a link, skim a few sentences quickly, and only absorb exciting phrases or key words. Their interest wanes after a few paragraphs and, although they might try to refocus to “push through the end of the piece,” they often restlessly click to another article, a video, or back to their email inbox or Facebook page.
This behavior has become an unfortunate reading habit for many. Claire Handscombe, an American University graduate student who Rosenwald interviewed, described her affliction: “It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.” Tufts University researcher Maryanne Wolf said, “I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing.” Wolf is a neuroscientist who has studied this problem. She warns that humans are developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming information, and those circuits compete with traditional deep-reading circuitry developed over centuries. University of Texas professor Andrew Dillion said, “We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling, and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking and linking are just ingrained in you.”
The impact of reviewing huge amounts of content online – all of which is packaged with hyperlinked text, videos and lots of interactivity – is that we take shortcuts to deal with it. We now mostly scan, seek key words, scroll up and down, and quickly move to another screen if the content doesn’t instantly grab our interest. Even when the information captures our interest, I’d wager most people read with comprehension and retention for only five, maybe 10, minutes. If you doubt that, consider how often you’ve viewed a 15-minute video or read a 2,000-word document. Just think how quickly we’ve gone from faxing entire documents (yes, I’m a dinosaur) to reading emails to tweeting our thoughts in 140 characters.
So, what’s my point? I worry that our work habits are starting to threaten our most precious resource: our ability to synthesize ideas, craft strategies, solve problems, and create plans, solutions and tactics. Lots of vital information can’t be reduced to a sound bite or “sight” bite, and many meetings and discussions demand our full attention and participation. Despite the pace of today’s hectic work world, we must develop serious, thoughtful and focused processes that require our brain to shift out of “fast forward” so it has a chance to do the heavy lifting quality work requires.
In our case, that means making archery a mainstream sport and lifelong activity for all Americans. It’s a monumental challenge, but it’s attainable. We’ve come far during the past decade. Archery is in nearly 20 percent of the nation’s schools, bowhunting’s numbers are all-time highs, and archery is “trending” in popular culture. Still, we’re far from reaching our sports’ peaks. For archery to sit alongside football, baseball, basketball, tennis and other higher-profile sports, it requires more from us than short, sporadic, unfocused effort.