If you wanted to get ahold of me, if you were important to me and I to you, you had my phone number or my email address.
In fact, this helped me focus. Email, in particular, acted as a singularly powerful organizing tool. Any communication I had with anyone of consequence (or not) could be found in a quick search of years worth of email.
Now, though, I’m checking my Facebook stream regularly – and trying to remember to check that in-box as well. There’s also the LinkedIn inbox. And even though I get alerts about new messages back in my regular mailbox, they still need tending. Meanwhile, I’m trying to think of big or little thoughts to “share” with friends. Got to keep up the socializing or pushing the personal brand or both. As one friend puts it:
“We are being led to believe that unless we participate in these activities we will be left behind and it will impair our social lives and careers.’’
I am more worried about that second part. If I really started Twittering at every turn and keeping up a stream of social status updates and Skyping and IM’g and working three email boxes around the clock, there’d be precious little time to … focus on what matters. The job at hand.
Figuring I was not alone in trying to deal with this ‘splittering’ of attention and concentration, I decided to consult with Dr. David W. Goodman, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He’s an assistant professor in its department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences as well as the director of Maryland’s Adult Attention Disorder Center.
Are all these colliding forms of communication, from 140-word Twitters and status updates to the maintenance of blogs to the constant stream of Blackberry email messages, combining to create a new strain of Adult Attention Disorder?
No, he said. Even in adults, attention disorders are psychiatric in nature and, 75 percent of the time, inherited. Genetically determined. A chronic condition that usually emerges on childhood and which leads to daily battles with disorganization in thinking.
What is happening with the splittering of communications instead is an overload of distractions, on individual plates.
This puts strain, instead, on what Dr. Goodman calls the “executive functioning” of the brain.
Some people are able to intuitively and naturally organize and prioritize endless streams of inputs and respond accordingly, rapidly.
Others, though, succumb to the distractions and can’t get out from under them. The barrage of communications and trying to figure out what to do with their contents – and the emotion that goes with some of it – “disrupts the ability to accurately prioritize” what to do. Or not to do.
Young people are better at dealing with it. But not immune.
If distraction leads to disorder in your life, then it will take conscious application of basic organization techniques to rectify. Many of which are easier said, than executed.
Here are some of Dr. Goodman’s recommended techniques:
Screen your screens. Turn off all your screens, when you have work to do.
Grey out the Blackberry. You may not be able to turn it off, but figure out how to set the vibrator to only go off when your boss is trying to reach you.
Slot your communication time. Set an alert to check your Twitter stream just once an hour. Establish a practice of checking your email twice a day, at set times, such as 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Check everything else on your own time.
Slot your ‘to do’ time. This is the hard one. The natural tendency is to just let the ‘To Do’ list build up and then tackle each item, when there’s time. Make time. Assign an hour to each item, just like it was a meeting or event. Close the door. Do it.
If your day and your focus is still breaking down, you’re going to have to even set some time up for figuring out what your priorities really are (and why) as well as setting (then hitting) deadlines.
All this may mean you’ll have to resist the ethos of the social media and electronic communications that almost has come to be: