What Was I Saying? What are the Consequences of our Multi-Tasking Society?

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An article in this week’s Wall Street Journal, entitled “How to End the Age of Inattention,” provides some excellent food for thought.

We have all heard much discussion about the recent proliferation of multi-tasking in our everyday lives, as many of us text while walking, read e-mail while on the phone, or update our Facebook status while on vacation. This article explores whether the trend of constantly divided attention may have contributed to some of the issues that have been in the media this year, namely the JP Morgan loss and the secret service scandal.

The article highlights a fascinating class, which has been woven into the Yale Medical School curriculum, called “Enhancing Observational Skills,” where students visit a museum to look at classic paintings. They are then asked to describe health related aspects of the people depicted in the artwork.

Apparently, some version of this course has been instituted in a number of schools across the country. According to Linda Friedlaender, the Curator of Education at the Yale Center for British Art:

“We are trying to slow down the students. They have an urge to come up with a diagnosis immediately and get the right answer.”   

This is fascinating to me, as I am generally more likely to see the forest than the trees. To link increased multi-tasking and a reduction in attention spans to the JP Morgan and secret service scandals is intriguing.

While I agree that shorter attention spans, which have clearly become a fundamental component of our society are troubling, I am not sure that this is what led to the scandals the author cites. Scandals like these, especially the secret service scandal, have been a constant, at least in my lifetime. And I am quite sure that any historian could highlight some juicy scandals from the past.

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But the author raises an interesting point. Courses such as the one highlighted at the Yale Medical School serve a need. They enable students to step away from all the technological innovations that have been developed over the past 50 years, and forces them to depend more on skills that have been there all along – skills of observation and attention.

Personally, I think this may be a promising new type of progress.

What do you think?  Do you think that there is a correlation between the reduced attention span and recent scandals, as the Wall Street Journal article posits? Are you concerned about the shortened attention spans cited in the article? If you have kids, are you doing anything to try and increase their attention span or to encourage uninterrupted activity? Do you have any tools you use to help yourself with this? Do you use any specific exercises to help you or your kids pay more attention to details? (I could use advice on that last one – in fact on all of these – myself!)

I hope you will take a time to share your thoughts. Thank you for reading!    


Filed under Career Planning, Education, Health, Parenting, Social Media, social pressures, Youth Leadership

23 responses to “What Was I Saying? What are the Consequences of our Multi-Tasking Society?

  1. I do think that we have a shorter attention span but i wonder if it also has to do with the amount of information that is out there. After all we are all nosy and if we only do one thing we miss out on something else … hence double screening etc …

  2. I don’t think there’s any way the author can link multi-tasking or short attention spans to the Secret Service scandal. Causal arguments are nearly impossible to make as any scientist could tell the author. But the notion of walking medical students through an art gallery and teaching them to slow down and observe carefully is brilliant. We could all stand to slow down and look, listen, and sniff the world around us — and medical personnel are no exception.

  3. First it has nothing to do with any scandal. If anything, you need to pay attention to details when you are lying at those levels. As for the rest, this fast pace is dehumanizing us. Now that doctors are paying attention to entering your info on the computer while their treating you, they are not listening or looking at you. My kids 19 & 17 never talk on the phone, everything is texting and so much is lost in translation. I HATE IT. When they text me I respond with “pick up the phone.”

    • I love that response! Good for you! I might steal that to use with a few friends. I completely agree. There is so much more interaction through technology, and so much less human interaction these days. I have to believe there will be consequences. Thanks so much for your response!

  4. There is a minimal connection between those scandals and our distracted techno-lifestyles. But it isn’t from multitasking. What might be argued is our “instant society” has lost the need for patience and we expect to be gratified now. These are two different and overlapping technologically created problems. I think the author has confused them – and so has ended up being an example of the same problem. Bravo – they at least are writing what they know. Just not very well. By not taking the time to focus on the issue of “delaying gratification” the author has confused that modern problem with multitasking. Perhaps the author should have put down their smartphone and focused on writing a coherent argument.

    • I think you are right about the connection piece – the argument is very weak. But I think that you make the connection more clear – tying it to the need for instant gratification. That makes a lot more sense to me. But I thought the course described in the article sounded like a great idea that could help students start to “put down their smart phones” a little more frequently. Thanks for reading and for your comment!

  5. Short attention span is a global issue, and it affects everything.

    In fact, I’m certain that this is the culprit behind the demise/low ratings/reduced box-office earnings of what could have been excellent TV shows or movies: anything demanding full attention and not allowing people to tweet or IM every few minutes is an instant flop. I mean, have you seen how many people answer their phones while supposedly watching a movie?

    And this is just one of the consequences. People just don’t want to pay attention if it’s not gonna let them be “connected” in the meantime.

    And it’s only gonna get harder. Kids are exposed to a million things nowadays and if they don’t learn from us to pay attention, well, we won’t be going anywhere any time soon, right?

  6. I really enjoyed reading this post! And as a Student I can relate to this. I personally don’t find multitasking to be very efficient. I’m finding this more because I’m working as a research assistant and I’m on unstructured time which I’m not used too. Also because we’re so connected it is hard to get away from everything and we’re so used to having the computer on all the time, that when it’s off we become impatient. I’ve had that happen to me and I’m slowly learning to shake off technology at least for an hour while doing research (with books of course) and then get back into it.

    There was an article on Good.Is I think where a prof from Yale had requested a classroom where there was no wireless and I think there was no cell phone signal so people were actually forced to pay attention. I think in this digital age, that’s a pretty hard thing to do, but Kudos to him for trying it out. I think if you’re not paying full attention to something you really are missing the point of it all.

    Great post once again 🙂

    • Thanks! 🙂 I am working on this myself. It is amazing to see how much more focused and how much more clear my mind is when I take time away from technology and go for a bike ride or a yoga class. Thanks so much for your comment and for reading!

  7. Jenni, great article and well-written. In my view, our society is too connected at times. What is the cost? I think being driven by what you can envision on a small screen, you miss a deeper diagnostic of the real issues. It creates an impatient communicator who does not think enough about the problem. I do think it relates to the financial crisis and the JPMC losses as the financial business is overly complex and fewer people know the subtlety of all of the issues. So, it was hard for one person to see the ship was on fire. I also read that louder voices shouted people down in meetings, so that good dialogue around what was happening did not occur. With subtle issues, you want as many good thinkers sharing their thoughts as possible. There is a great book called “Crash of the Titans” where both Bank of America and Merrill Lynch did not have good internal communication when they needed it most. I think the medical study is dead on accurate. Well done.

    • Thank you! That is high praise coming from you. I feel like your posts are always thoughtful, well developed and informative. I’ll have to check out that book! Thanks for the insightful comment!

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