That’s Men: Staying in touch while missing out on life


Back in the old days (I mean 2005), the organisers of a big digital conference in the United States switched off the Wi-Fi because the sea of lit-up screens made it clear that the speakers on stage were wasting their time: the laptop users’ attention was on their screens and not on what the contributors had to say.

If you go to workshops, you’ll be familiar with the person with their phone out during the proceedings and who might be taking notes or might really be on Twitter, you never know. That, and other variations – writing emails, scrolling through Facebook and watching puppy videos (I’m not kidding), for instance – looks like bad manners, and it is.

Paying attention
But there’s more to it than that. What’s really going on, I think, is that the ability to pay attention is becoming one of the world’s scarce commodities.

I was stopped in my tracks though by the statement by Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, that in the US, corporate executives are getting prescriptions for anti-ADHD drugs to help them focus on their work.

These executives don’t have ADHD. What they have is an addiction to the distractions offered by smartphones and tablets. Writing in the December issue of Mindful magazine, Goleman states that teenagers are also pretending to have ADHD so that they can get drugs to help them to focus on their studies. And it’s not just the students: a college professor confessed that when reading a book on his speciality, he is overwhelmed after every two pages by the urge to check his emails.

Somehow we have been hooked by our ever present ability to check, check, check and check again. We have become rats in a Skinner box.

A Skinner box (named after the behavioural psychologist BF Skinner) is a box with a lever that can deliver a pellet of food when it is pulled. When you put a rat into a Skinner box, he figures this out soon enough and, needless to say, proceeds to pull the lever rather a lot.

The thing is, though, that if pulling the lever delivers a pellet of food every time, the rat can get bored.

To really keep the rat interested you need to deliver food often enough, but not all the time. Does that sound familiar? You look at your emails and see nothing of interest but after you’ve checked again a few times oh, look, there’s a little pellet.

The same goes for Facebook and Twitter. (By the way, despite all this I am very fond of Twitter though currently in exile from it due to the necessity to finish writing a book with a deadline looming.)

Shorter attention spans
As attention scatters, attention spans shorten. Goleman quotes an advertising salesman in Mexico who complains that the five-minute video pitches he used to make at meetings with ad agencies now have to be done in a minute and a half: otherwise people start checking their phones or their tablets.

I don’t know about Irish ad agencies or the use of Ritalin by students or corporate executives in Ireland. However, I would not be overly surprised if it is happening here given the evidence we all see of the inability of responsible adults to stay off the phone even during a workshop.

Various methods have been suggested for restoring attention: mindfulness, memorising, concentration exercises and so on. I’m quite sure that all of these help and indeed “mindfulness” is, in many respects, another word for aware attention.

But the real answer, it seems to me, is for us to realise that we’re going down a very foolish road and that we first need to decide that our attention is too valuable an asset to allow it to be shredded by our toys.

Otherwise, the day may not be far off when somebody will miss the birth of their child or the death of a loved one because they couldn’t resist checking their phone. That’s if it hasn’t happened already.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas.

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