Divided Attention

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm

Some of you have heard one of my presentations on The Art of Listening, and my urging to give your world-your kids, your partner, your colleagues, your work-the gift of your complete attention.

In a July 5 column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman described how our attention is becoming ever more divided-and diluted. He writes, "we have gone from the Iron Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age to the Age of Interruption."  We interrupt ourselves and each other with instant messages, call-waiting, e-mail, or cell phones. We demand that our attention be ready to leap in a new direction at any second.

Friedman quotes the former Microsoft executive Linda Stone who labeled the disease of our age as "continuous partial attention." That’s when you’re on the cell phone or Internet or Blackberry, watching TV out of some corner of your mind, and answering a question from your kid. Everything gets a sliver of attention-continuous partial attention. For way too many people all over the world, this goes on all day and evening.

I’m probably as wired as the next person. Still, I agree with Friedman that we are heading in the direction of being "too connected." If everything and everyone is getting only partial attention, we’re skipping rocks over the surface of relationships, creative thought, deep reflection, and productivity. We are in danger of losing the rich new ideas, inventions, and compositions that need time uninterrupted to evolve from seed to awesome finale. We are in danger of being in a near constant state of readiness, of being alert to our customized ringtone, of interrupting whatever we’re doing to check email one more time, of anticipating the alarm on the PDA to jar us into remembering an appointment.

Here’s one of my pet-peeve interruptions. In the middle of a conversation with someone, his cell phone rings. Reaching for it (or rummaging in a briefcase for it) he will say something to this effect: "Oh I meant to turn that off."

Then while our business or whatever is suspended in mid-air, the next move is to stare at the thing as if he must make sure it isn’t the White House calling. Then something like "I’ll call her back later" and perhaps then turning the phone off.

People do this to each other all the time and it seems as if the one left watching this mini-drama is somehow entertained by it! Who can pick up the thread of conversation and go on with any hint of energy?

Now I do benefit from advances in technology, and believe cell phones may save lives and have made it possible for relatives of mine coming from all over the country to converge in one restaurant in a quaint Florida village, all within five minutes of each other. That was impressive.

I guess it’s just a matter of whether being wired is controlling our lives, or we’re in charge and utilizing some darned amazing developments when we so choose-to add efficiency, not the rapid heartbeat of anxiety and the fatigue of continuous splintered attention.

My full and satisfying life was interrupted with a jolt late this June when my husband, Jim, lost his courageously fought battle with cancer. Life as I’ve known it is interrupted. I’ve temporarily lost my luster. I know it will return and life will go on and be very good again. It just will never be the same.

Jim is my hero for many good reasons. One is that he did not go around giving only partial attention to those of us he loved, to a Packer game, or to the natural world (all of which were sacred to him). He focused. He was unwired. He hated cell phones and kept saying the Internet was a fad. We think he was joking about that.

What I do have in my rich storehouse of memories is him identifying the critter responsible for every chirp in the forests up north. He could spot eagles over those northern lakes while I was thinking there was just a spot on my contact lens. He saw red hawks in the trees on golf courses we played and brought them to my attention. Even in his last hospital stay he found delight in a nest of baby birds outside his window, tucked into a beam on a construction project.

Wired, no. Present, yes.

Once I thought that if I had known I was coming to the end of an era, I would have paid closer attention. Once I thought, Oh man, all those last times, and I didn’t even know it.

Navigating the past weeks though, I realized that if I had known, I wouldn’t have really been present, but splintered off into having an early funeral mentally or something. We were connected in living color, not text messaging, and I am very grateful.

Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Whitefish Bay. She can be reached at (414) 332-0300 or at jo@hawkinsdonovan.com. The firm’s Web site is www.hawkinsdonovan.com.


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