Before the internet and social networking ensnared me, I was able to focus on a feature film, falling right into its world while taking nice break from my own. Now I can't watch a movie without feeling incessant, emotional pulses from my Web entanglements to go online: Email!...Facebook!...News! A two-hour film feels like an imposition: when will the damn thing be over? I'm addicted to distraction.
But the internet is not the only thing pressuring our ability to focus. I teach high school in a community that values and supports education with high quality buildings, technology, administrators, and teachers. Virtually all of our students participate in co-curricular activities. Many of the very high achieving kids want to do everything, and do it all at a professional level. They believe that getting into a great college or university requires nothing less.
As students try to do everything, they drive themselves ragged. They show up to school exhausted. Their parents even excuse them from classes on days they need to make up work or catch up on their sleep. Where does the expectation come from that kids must be "straight A" students or award-winning performers in every sport or performing art?
Steve Jobs believed you cannot do everything if you want to be great at one thing. He practiced the power of "No": you have to consciously choose what you will not do if you want to focus well enough to reach perfection. How do we support students to strike the right balance of activities? Steve Jobs would start with teaching them the power of choosing when to say "No."
Apple's most recent mission statement (June 2013) affirms Steve Job's philosophy of focus:
It's ironic that Job's own company designs and manufactures products that wreak havoc with our focus. Jobs thought of the computer as a bicycle for the mind, something that would help him think better, not something that would fragment, distract, and scatter a person's thinking.
Doesn't high technology make us smarter rather than distracted? Aren't students better multi-taskers than their parents? We're just smart in a "21st century way," right? Nicholas Carr explores these questions and more in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
Carr says we're learning important skills using the Web, but we're also losing something very important--deep focus, the kind required for problem-solving and creativity:
As our work and social lives come to center on the use of electronic media, the faster we’re able to navigate those media and the more adroitly we’re able to shift our attention among online tasks, the more valuable we’re likely to become as employees and even as friends and colleagues. As the writer Sam Anderson put it in “In Defense of Distraction,” a 2009 article in New York magazine, “Our jobs depend on connectivity” and “our pleasure-cycles—no trivial matter—are increasingly tied to it.” The practical benefits of Web use are many, which is one of the main reasons we spend so much time online. “It’s too late,” argues Anderson, “to just retreat to a quieter time.”
He’s right, but it would be a serious mistake to look narrowly at the Net’s benefits and conclude that the technology is making us more intelligent. Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience unit at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explains that the constant shifting of our attention when we’re online may make our brains more nimble when it comes to multitasking, but improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively. “Does optimizing for multitasking result in better functioning—that is, creativity, inventiveness, productiveness? The answer is, in more cases than not, no,” says Grafman. “The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.” You become, he argues, more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought. David Meyer, a University of Michigan neuroscientist and one of the leading experts on multitasking, makes a similar point. As we gain more experience in rapidly shifting our attention, we may “overcome some of the inefficiencies” inherent in multitasking, he says, “but except in rare circumstances, you can train until you’re blue in the face and you’d never be as good as if you just focused on one thing at a time.” What we’re doing when we multitask “is learning to be skillful at a superficial level.” The Roman philosopher Seneca may have put it best two thousand years ago: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
In an article published in Science in early 2009, Patricia Greenfield, a prominent developmental psychologist who teaches at UCLA, reviewed more than fifty studies of the effects of different types of media on people’s intelligence and learning ability. She concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” We can, for example, rotate objects in our minds better than we used to be able to. But our “new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence” go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.” The Net is making us smarter, in other words, only if we define intelligence by the Net’s own standards. If we take a broader and more traditional view of intelligence—if we think about the depth of our thought rather than just its speed—we have to come to a different and considerably darker conclusion (Kindle Locations 2399-2427).
One beautiful compromise between both worlds is my e-reader. While it is a product of 21st century technology, it keeps me focused by only providing me with the unadorned text: it says "No" for me to the Web's distractions (I own the basic Kindle. High end e-readers now offer full access to the Web). Diving into long novels and nonfiction on my e-reader is one of the ways I hold onto the skill of deep, sustained thinking—focus without distraction. Just like riding a bicycle.