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Distracted: Finding Focus in an ADD World

How did I come to write a book about attention — and our collective ADD?

The short answer is, I backed into the subject.

The Role of Technology — Overload, hurry, boundary-less living: these topics have been mainstays of my writing for the past decade. But a few years ago, I became fascinated by the role of technology in this new world. The computer, cell phone and then the pda seemed to be rewriting work, home and everything in-between. Was it all so simple: new gadgets, new world? And how could we tame these wondrous devices, since we certainly couldn’t go back to a tech-free age?

I sought clues in history, thinking that the first high-tech age, which ushered in inventions from the telegraph and cinema to the jet, rail and car, could show me how to manage our own frenetic time. And it was eye-opening — but not in the way I expected. I discovered that our lives of split-focus, hyper-mobility, and alternative realities are not all new. Rather, the first high-tech era ushered in new experiences of time, space and place that we’re still wrestling with today. Our age is essentially the culmination of forces unleashed centuries ago.

Epiphany! Attention is the Key — And most importantly, this age of speed and overload is undermining our powers of attention. Attention — that’s the key to understanding how to cope with 21st-century living. We’ve overstepped the boundaries of our attentional capacity – that’s why we’re increasingly miserable amidst our technological riches.

A dark age? — Those two words in the title of my book are attention-grabbers. Are they alarmist? As I began to investigate the fate of attention in a digital age, I dug into studies of turning points in civilization. Perhaps it shook me that great thinkers from Umberto Eco to Harold Bloom to Jane Jacobs have called our time a “dark age.” Perhaps I was struck by the fact that we so often label our own era a new age, be it digital or information. What is a dark age, and why do complex, affluent societies begin to falter? These questions are crucial to understanding the costs of our speed-driven, hyper-complex and attention-deficient lives.

That’s how I came to write a book about attention — and much more.

Distracted isn’t about weighty theories, or dusty trends from the past. It’s all about the new science of attention, which is mapping, decoding and defining this essential human skill for the first time. And it’s about our power bar-grabbing, frenetic multitasking, info-overloaded, cyber-centric, no-time-to-focus lives.

  • We connect with millions of people across the globe, but have trouble grabbing dinner with those we love.
  • We can tap into billions of info-bytes, yet increasingly we create knowledge from what’s first-up on Google.
  • We’ve cut back on sleep and time with hobbies, friends and neighbors — yet still feel that we can’t afford to pause, relax — even take a vacation day.

Distracted is about how we shape the future — and whether we have much of a say in what tomorrow brings, or whether we’re going to give it half an eye and a shred of focus as we hurry on by, too distracted to notice the course of our lives.

Attention — that’s the key!

Leave a Comment

3 Comments

  1. Jun 15, 200810:31 am

    Hi Maggie,

    I enjoyed today’s Boston Globe piece on stay-at-home dads. I actually changed careers (from accounting) and started a business (writing/ communications)at home while caring for two daughters.

    I look forward to reading “Distracted” — and I’d like to offer seven few tips for getting focused:

    – Develop a deep breathing exercise routine, twice daily, to relieve stress and re-charge your batteries.
    – Practice mindful meditation to focus energies on being “present” and quieting distractions.
    – Take blocks of time during your day to concentrate on singular activities, such as answering e-mails or making or returning phone calls.
    – Plan out each day and break down to-dos from highest to lowest priorities, and steer work accordingly.
    – Respect others’ time and insist that they respect yours.
    – Don’t answer the phone during family dinners!
    – Pray!

  2. Jun 19, 20086:14 pm

    Great tips! I’m finding that many people have their own individual ways of finding focus and quieting their lives. It seems daunting to get started, but sometimes even small steps make a big difference.

  3. Jun 23, 20085:17 pm

    In the early days of the computer biz, time on a mainframe was expensive, so each computer logged its activity one of two categories. If it was running a program (ie, actually doing work), it logged that time as “program” mode. If the disk drive was unloading one program or loading another, it was in “system” mode (leaving one task or preparing to start another.)

    When the log showed that the computer had spent 51% or more of its time in “system” mode (not doing work, but shifting from task to task) the computer was said to be “thrashing.” I asked my boss, a career programmer from the early days, how that term came about. He said it referred to the old disk-changing hardware–when the computer was receiving a high percentage of commands to load / unload, the constant mechanical reversal and initiation of tasks would cause the disk drives to physically shake and shudder.

    Get the analogy?

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