Battling 21st Century attention deficit

TV viewing may be down, but we have transferred all that time to other screens: office phones, mobile phones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers and even gaming devices. We’re giving ourselves a new version of attention-deficit disorder, one of our own device, or, I should say, devices.

A study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh analyzed the impact that juggling modern communications has on someone’s brain while they’re working. The research found that the constant distractions that we now face from phone, e-mails, texts, and social media are ruining our ability to complete tasks as efficiently as we used to and, in fact, can actually impair cognitive ability. They’re actually making us less effective!

In the past, many people believed that multitasking was a good way to increase productivity. After all, if you’re working on several different tasks at once, you’re bound to accomplish more and earn the admiration of your peers, right? Not so, says Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT. He states that “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves.”

“Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time, but you’re actually not,” says Miller. You’re not mentally processing two or more things simultaneously, but alternating between them very rapidly. Shifting from one task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that can slow down your progress.

The part of the brain that does this switching is called the “executive system.” Executive processes allow us to exert some sort of voluntary control over our behavior. The executive system also helps us achieve a goal by ignoring distractions.

Take a moment and think about all of the things you are doing right now — obviously you are reading this article, but perhaps you’re also listening to music, texting a friend, checking your e-mail or playing a computer game.

There’s no question that modern technology brings us ever-evolving improvements that, if used efficiently, can greatly enhance our lives and expand our abilities. However, it’s easy to fall into habits that overwhelm and actually make us less productive.

We’ve created this monster; now how do we tame it? How can we train our brain’s executive systems to turn down the “noise”?

Following are some common-sense approaches to help balance the distractions in your workday:


Stop reading and responding to e-mails at a steady drip throughout the day. Use Outlook or another calendar utility to schedule two or three 30-minute windows. When you do respond, do so concisely. Save that long e-mail string and lay out a cogent response.

It’s not likely that you’ll reply to anything in your in-box that’s older than two weeks. Delete it or put it in a folder.

Deal once with e-mail — respond, file, or delete. This will save you the time to read it initially and then finding it a second time in order to reply.

Unsubscribe to newsletters you’re not reading.

Set your computer and mobile devices to not notify you when new e-mail arrives.


In many instances texts, because of their brevity, can be an attractive alternative to e-mail. Just be sure that alerts are turned off so they don’t interrupt the task at hand.

Web browsing

Pick a task. The ability to use multiple open tabs in our web browser is both a useful thing and an opportunity to be distracted repeatedly. Consider the value of the active tabs you have open. Do you really want a reminder to revisit Facebook every 12 minutes?

Voice mail

When leaving voice mail, be brief. State your name and phone number up front, even if the person knows you. Record the most important information first so people can hang up sooner. Hopefully, your behavior will inspire others to refrain from leaving rambling messages in your voice-mail box.

Social media

Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter and their ilk can be fun but, let’s be honest — they’re huge time vacuums. And they’re not called “social” media for nothing. If you do have a business purpose, keep it brief and don’t be tempted to visit your personal pages.

Face-to-face contact

The time and ability to actually be with someone is at a premium. Maintain eye contact and really listen to ensure you hear what they are saying and ensure the person feels valued.

When you’re with someone in person, don’t allow distractions. If you’re meeting in person with someone, make it your credo not to allow yourself to be distracted by an electronic device. Letting the phone go to voice mail (which, by the way, used to be the norm) goes far in showing your appreciation for the person in your presence. Few calls need to be answered right away. It wasn’t that many years ago that we managed perfectly well without access to a phone every minute of every hour 24/7.

Everyone is busy. If you think being harried is a badge of honor, reconsider. Full attention is the latest currency. You’ll appreciate your new ability to focus, your renewed peace of mind, and your unique reputation as a person who is fully present.

Tune out

Schedule some time, however brief, to enjoy without any distractions. No phones, texts, instant messages, e-mail alerts or meetings. Even better, share your calendar so others can see this time blocked out.

The next time you find yourself multitasking when you are trying to be productive, take a quick assessment of the various things you are trying to accomplish. Eliminate distractions and try to focus on one prioritized activity at a time. You’ll likely produce more in less time and have better relationships.

Give your “executive system“ the VIP treatment. Close the door, stop juggling, and enjoy the sensation – that’s your stress level dropping to a more manageable level.

Teresa Martin is the principal of The Profitability Solution in Reno. Contact her at or 775-825-1568.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment