Attention!

Jan 28, 2008  |  Michael Wurzer

“Was the babysitter fun last night?”, I said to my daughters this morning. They responded, nearly in unison, “Yeah! She only sent one text message to her friends all night.”


I’m standing on a cliff, considering shutting off all that is currently dear to me. I just read a brilliant article in The Atlantic called The Autumn of the Multitaskers:

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires — the constant switching and pivoting — energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on. . . .

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

Just prior to the above quote from the article is perhaps the most important sentence I’ve read in a long time: “[Multi-tasking] isn’t working, it never has worked, and though we’re still pushing and driving to make it work and puzzled as to why we haven’t stopped yet, which makes us think we may go on forever, the stoppage or slowdown is coming nonetheless, and when it does, we’ll be startled for a moment, and then we’ll acknowledge that, way down deep inside ourselves (a place that we almost forgot even existed), we always knew it couldn’t work.”

I go to Mass once or twice per week, depending on whether it is my week to be the lector at the noon Mass on Mondays. The one hour I spend in Church on those days are the only times I don’t carry my Treo. No matter what else I’m doing, I have it with me, and am checking it pretty much constantly. (Actually, I do have it with me during those Monday Masses but I make sure it is shut off.) After the Eucharist, I focus on a prayer called Teach Me To Listen, which I found years ago while on a silent retreat. The prayer is simple but powerful, entreating me to listen more. This prayer speaks to me because I know, deep inside, that I need to listen more. This morning, as soon as I started praying to myself the now familiar words (“Teach me, O God, to listen to those nearest me, my family . . .”), the words of my daughters that morning rang out. What they valued most about the baby-sitter was that she didn’t text too much, which, of course, meant that she was at least somewhat present to them. She was paying them attention, a priceless gift, too easily withheld.

How many times am I splitting my attention among my wife or daughters or co-workers or friends or clients because I’m wondering who’s posted what on their blog or my blog or e-mailed me or Twittered me or someone or updated their Facebook or my wall or befriended me. In those moments, why can’t I remember the prayer that’s so important to me? Why are all these distractions more important than listening, instead of pretending to listen? Though I’ve been afflicted for some time with these distractions, blogging has made it worse. Now I’m always wanting to read through my reader to see who is writing what, and at least some of that is because I’m wondering if they’re writing about me. There are many wonderful things about blogging and reading blogs (not the least of which is discovering articles like the one quoted above from The Atlantic), but the constant intercession into my life is not one of them. Blogging is like a tornado, sucking my attention up and away.

I’ve said to many and even written that blogging is a great way to develop and communicate strategy, which is core to my role as CEO of FBS. I still believe that. At the same time, the attention drain that can come with blogging is dangerous and easily counter-productive. I recently read Andrew Grove’s Only The Paranoid Survive and the core advice he gives is that you need to constantly listen for the subtle yet profound signals of what he calls “10x inflection points.” Is it possible to think with all the noise around us? How do we separate the signal from the noise?

Even in this post, my attention has shifted from my family to my business. I think loving your job is a great thing and I do but I love my family more. If the baby-sitter can do a better job by not texting so much, how much more important is that for me, their father? But you know what dogs me? I know how much my clients love it when I respond right away to their questions, day or night. I want to respond to their questions. I want to communicate and engage and be friends with my clients and co-workers and my family. What I need, though, is to be present and that’s not possible all at once. This I know, with certainty, way deep down inside. The Treo must be turned off more than just one or two hours a week. Prayers are great, actions are better. So, good night, I’m going to kiss my wife and I leave you with my prayer:

Teach Me to Listen

Teach me to listen, O God,
to those nearest me,
my family, my friends, my co-workers.
Help me to be aware that
no matter what words I hear,
the message is,
“Accept the person I am. Listen to me.”

Teach me to listen, my caring God,
to those far from me —
the whisper of the hopeless,
the plea of the forgotten,
the cry of the anguished.

Teach me to listen, O God my Mother,
to myself.
Help me to be less afraid
to trust the voice inside —
in the deepest part of me.

Teach me to listen, Holy Spirit,
for your voice —
in busyness and in boredom,
in certainty and in doubt,
in noise and in silence.

Teach me, Lord, to listen. Amen.

– Adapted by John Veltri, S.J.

6 Responses to “Attention!”

  1. tpaulj says:

    I consider this one of your most improtant posts. Thanks for this grounding message.

  2. Kevin Boer says:

    I find myself much more productive — and much less stressed — on days when I shut down IM and email, restrain myself from compulsive news and blog-checking, and just buckle down. Checking email 4x per day should be enough. Maybe some day I’ll have the guts to bring that down to once!

  3. John Wake says:

    A relationship “guru” I’m fond of says – and I think there is a lot of truth in it – that women are natural multi-taskers. She says that women don’t choose to multi-task, women are always multi-tasking. The ability to take care of a kid, cook and do other work all at the same time are traits evolution would reward in women.

    Men on the other hand are single focused. We work on one thing at a time and are oblivious to everything else. Evolution would reward men who would track a deer – for days if needed – and not come home until they succeeded.

    Have you ever noticed that there are few men in a hugely multitasking job like being an escrow officer? We are not naturally good at it.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this but she says men need “transition time” between tasks.

    For example, she advises wives to leave their husbands alone (after a greeting) when husbands first come home from work so the husbands can have a little time to transition to being at home.

    I would much rather spend all day working on one difficult, complex problem (the deer), than juggle a zillions details. Juggling a zillions details is very stressful for me while diving deeply into a difficult problem is kinda fun… and at the end of the day you might bring home a deer.

    I don’t know what the solution is. My strategy today is to try and see if I can develop systems (the deer) that organize the work better so I don’t have to juggle details as much…. and to learn how to stop hunting blogs after 10:00 pm. Well… not tonight but that’s my goal.

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