Attention: Giving It and Getting It

by Marianne Richmond on March 29, 2006

Dave Pollard writes in How to Save the World that "What people seek from others more than anything else, is attention and appreciation." He references an earlier post where he wrote, "It’s really all about attention, and paying attention. The attention we pay to others, and that others pay to us, defines us, far more than our appearance or our name. And how can we appreciate what someone (a life partner, a business partner, a customer, an employee, a friend  or foe  is about and has to offer)  unless and until we pay attention to her, really listen and observe with (as much as is humanly possible no judgment, no personal filters or frames impeding. And once we’ve paid enough attention that we really understand that person (or for that matter, that creature of any species), how can we not appreciate her….watch, listen, observe, pay attention and you will know the reason."

I couldn’t agree more and I couldn’t practice it less. Just ask my children.

And of course I have a million excuses and explanations for this but that doesn’t change the outcome which is that the people that I care most about don’t get my full attention and therefore do not feel appreciated. Linda Stone coined the term "continuous partial attention" in 1997 and described it as a way of life for the past two decades in order to keep up with responsibilities and relationships. She says, "With continuous partial attention we keep the top level item in focus and scan the periphery in case something more important emerges." She doesn’t mention the outer edge of continuous partial attention when the top level item is so constantly shifting that there really is no way to distinguish between the top level and the periphery. I think you have to be a single mother with adolescent sons to experience that.

Newsweek covering the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference that had as its theme the Attention Economy says that "carrying a BlackBerry is admitting that your commitment to your current activity is only partial." Linda Stone, Newsweek noted, draws a line between the benefits of perpetual contact through email, IMs, text messages and so on to the overloaded contact that puts us in a place of constant crisis; where continuous partial attention becomes distraction and we can’t make a commitment to any one thing. She describes continuous partial attention as being motivated by our need to be connected which is enabled by the technologies of connection; we meet a friend for lunch and during that hour we talk to others on our cellphone, eat, email, and answer text messages. We are busy, we are scanning. We don’t have a clue. There is no meaning . It is noise not music.   

Edward Hallowell, who is the co-author of Driven to Distraction the first book to, if nothing else make us feel okay about attention deficit disorder (ADD) has declared that there is an epidemic of attention deficit disorder. He has written a new book called CrazyBusy Overstretched,Overbooked, and About to Snap – Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD.
He uses the name attention deficit trait (ADT) to describe the condition when we get overloaded with incoming messages and competing tasks that we are unable to prioritize. Hallowell offers some solutions to "multi-tasking mania" such as allowing for 30 minutes a day for thinking or relaxing and to take time to connect to other people without your mobile device or laptop. I think we all know what we should do…what we don’t know is how to do it. Furthermore, we don’t have time to read his book. Note to Hallowell: Please write a blog so I can read that.

Research has shown that mulitasking reduces productivity. Research conducted by Joshua Rubenstein, PhD.indicates that task switching is counter productive and can even be dangerous when we don’t realize the limitations of our attention. As a matter of fact, Seth Greenberg, a professor at union College, says that "current cognitive models suggest that people have a limited amount of attention available at any moment…Attention can be thought of as a fuel that can be dispersed. Thus tasks can be performed simultaneously with efficiency as long as the required attention for both tasks does not exceed the limit." In other words,  attention divided cannot stand….do more accomplish less.

So…back to the issue of giving and getting attention. My kids will ask me to, for instance, watch a TV show with them and say and "you have to come in here" which means without my laptop. Kathy Sierra wrote a post called Your Brain on Multitasking and says that the solution is to just give things your undivided attention, to be mindful and do one thing at a time. In a more recent post she states, Multi-tasking Makes Us Stupid. Well, ok then…that is settled. Who wants to be stupid? I’ll turn off the computer, not answer the phone, not read, or otherwise not give you and the TV my undivided attention. Maybe we can even skip the TV part.

Scott Berkun really summed it up in an attention titled post, Attention and Sex. He writes, "Your obituary will not list the hours you fought off boring meetings or ignored your friends by reading forgettable blurbs about forgettable things on your cell phone or laptop. Instead it’s the intimate, deep moments that refuse division that matter." He goes on to set an attention value proposition: "how we spend our attention changes the value of what we spend it on." His analogy, "if you only spend a fast food amount of attention, you will never have a 5 star dining experience" puts it all into perspective. I think this means, be mindful.

Last week we received an email about the death of a student who was a class ahead of my older son. The kids got out of school for spring break on Thursday, March 17th. That night he was the passenger in a SUV that flipped over and he wasn’t wearing his seat belt. I need to give my children much more of my undivided  attention. We would all benefit  and no doubt be more focused on our tasks knowing that attention was a continuous whole, not a continuous partial.  I agree with Dave Pollard, that the attention and the appreciation that we give defines us and my definition right now is lacking.

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