The Lost Art of Paying Attention
Every once in a while, people are surveyed about what they consider to be the most significant inventions that have taken place in the past century. Cell phones are usually up there in the top ranks along with some of the vaccines and the rockets that enable space exploration – and I suspect that the electric car will earn a prominent place on the list as it becomes more commonplace.
Very few people share my choice: The TV remote control. While I agree that the cell phone enables us to do an amazing variety of things that were unthinkable years ago – while still enabling us to use it as an actual phone, the TV remote has actually facilitated the creation of one or two generations of individuals with short attention spans. While I haven’t done any research on the subject, I suspected that a sizeable percentage of increasing number of individuals who are diagnosed with ADHD have had their diagnosis created by the remote control.
Let me explain. I was part of that bridge generation who spent the early part of my childhood without a television in the house. Around the time of my early teens, televisions left their developmental phase and began to get commercially marketed, and by the time I graduated from high school our family had a TV, and so did the families of most of my friends.
For several decades, the experience of watching television consisted of turning on the set and turning the dial to whatever channel you were watching. If you wanted to change the channel, you had to physically get up to do so. It rarely made sense to get up during a commercial to see what was happening on another channel. By the time that you did so and returned to your seat, it was time to get back up and change back to the original channel, assuming that you wanted to continue watching the same show.
Then the remote was invented – making it easy to surf around the dial, change channels at will and without expending any energy. Despite the fact that it costs a lot of money to buy commercial time, generations of individuals have now grown up without ever having seen an entire commercial – except during the Super Bowl which has become known as the launching pad for the most creative commercials. Ironically, during the Super Bowl, non-football fans do their channel surfing when their commercials are interrupted from time to time by the football game.
The point of all this is that lacking focus has become a way of life for many people. If you attend zoom meetings where people can be seen through the gallery view, it’s not uncommon to see a percentage of them whose eyes aren’t looking at the screen but rather directed downward and obviously looking at their cell phones.
The research on multi-tasking is quite consistent. The brain is not designed for complex multi-tasking and trying to do more than one thing at a time impacts negatively on productivity. If we can stay focused on one thing at a time, we can become more productive, meetings can be shorter, and our lives will be less stressful and tiring.
The challenge is to learn to use the remote exclusively as a remote and not generalize its attention-limiting qualities to other settings – and maybe we will recover the lost art of paying attention.