Attention: continuous, partial, or just diminished?

Attention. It’s in the news a lot these days. Sometimes the stories are about doing more than one thing at a time, or doing many things at once and being proud of it. But my attention, and my capacity to pay attention, has been diminishing for some time now. I’m concerned that the information overloading, mulit-tasking, attention splitting experiences of using computers, cell phones, and digital games, are starting to cost me something. What that cost might be is an interesting question. But I feel busy and busier. I'm taking in more and more information. Or I feel I need to be, or should be, attending to, and assimilating, lots of information from a lots of different sources. Each new item demands some attention, as does transferring that attention from one item to the next. So, in order to try to keep up I give each thing less attention. If attention is something that I pay to things, it’s no wonder that I feel like I'm running a deficit. I’m reminded of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene, you know, where the mop is chasing Mickey Mouse. What the heck happened? I feel like it was just recently that I wrote letters using a Selectric typewriter, read books by turning pages, and opened the mail once a day with a letter opener. Now when I sit at the computer to write I have to work hard to follow Gene Fowler's advice about writing: "[to] sit staring at a blank piece of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” Blank piece of paper? I have seven windows open on my computer before I even get to the blank Word document. Where did all this stuff come from?

But all is not lost, at least not yet. Web sites are appearing to help me organize my work and myself. My friend Orcmid recently invited me to join one such website called “43 Things.” Why 43? The website creators say, “43 is the right number of things for a busy person to try and do.” That’s it then! Ironically when I first tried to access the website I received the message: “No suitable nodes are available to serve your request.” Wow, we are so busy organizing our lives that even the computers dedicated to helping can’t keep up. I guess I'm going to wait on this organizing thing for a while. In addition to websites, a whole series of books have been written around being more productive. One that gets a lot of press and looks good to me is called Getting Things Done. So, with some real effort I can be preternaturally efficient, productive, effective, and, guess what? Busy. I'm deeply suspicious: productive sounds good, busy ....

On top of the sheer number of things to do I also feel pressed for some time to be free of the overload. So I'm feeling that my free time is disappearing. A recent New York Times Circuits article described the attention diminishing effects afforded and caused by computer-based technology. It ended with the a quote from a corporate lawyer who struggles to ignore his new email long enough to finish his current thought or sentence. “Deep thought for a half-hour? Boy, that's hard,” Mr. Hecker said. “Does anyone ever really have deep thoughts for half an hour anymore?”

Well, there’s a real cost – no time for sustained deep thought. What happens to the tasks, judgments, and decisions that need long, deep thought to be done well? I guess I’m not doing them. I’ll be making that decision about how to make sense of a year of life’s ups and downs by thinking about it for, say, 10 minutes. I’m thinking that this doesn’t sound wise. What exactly is the rush? And how did I get into such a hurry? More importantly, am I going to get out of this hurry? And if so, how? Oh, and when?

I'm really going to have to pay full attention to these questions.