Offlining: The New Digital Detox

I’ve known for a while that multitasking is a lie. I don’t know anyone who can truly spread their attention across multiple jobs with equal focus. Like most people, I tend to toggle back and forth among tasks – blogging, watching Top Chef, listening to my daughter, ruminating about tomorrow’s schedule. It’s like trying to eat a five-course meal by tasting everything at once. It’s possible, but the net result is less enjoyment, if not lower efficiency.

But readjusting your relationship with technology isn’t simple. Because we’re addicts. That’s the other given of our media-feasting culture. Take the sturdy, un-hip BlackBerry. The form factor isn’t sleek like the newer Android devices or even the iPhone. But, on top of every ‘Berry, there’s that red light that blinks when a new message arrives. Reports say that users actually become hooked on the light. It’s a Pavlovian response. We’re helpless. If not CrackBerry, it’s at the very least the Starbucks of digital devices.

And though our appetite is still huge, the human capacity isn’t infinite. There’s that famous Matt Richtel piece about the dangers of technology overload.  It describes how our always-on access to digital gadgets affects how we process information, and how quickly we become distracted…leading us to crave more stimulation, which raises our distraction threshold. You get the idea. Your brain on technology. Next stop, digital detox?

In a way, yes. It’s called offlining, and it’s meant to culminate this Saturday, September 18, for a national day of being unplugged. The idea, which was (of course) dreamed up by a PR guy and an ad guru, was officially unveiled on Father’s Day of this year, as part of a call-to-action for parents to spend more time in face-to-face interaction with their families.

If the offliners have their way, the solemn Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur will be not just the occasion for religious atonement, but a day of digital fasting. Cold turkey…without the turkey, the ‘Berry, the sweets, the tweets, or any of the digital soup we’re bathed in. So far, over 10,000 people pledged to have 10 “device-free” dinners between June and this Saturday. To help spread the word, you can send e-cards downloaded from the offlining website to a tech-addicted friend or family member.

It’s a gimmick, but I love the offlining idea for the same reason that I appreciate the Heart Truth  or Earth Day, or any other call-to-action in the public education model. It’s a terrific use of the power of public relations to raise awareness and even change behavior. For me, a one-day digital fast won’t be too difficult, but it’s symbolic, of course. There’s plenty of room for improvement in my relationship to technology, and every reason to find new ways to cherish my relationship with family.

And there’s one more person in this mix who can use some attention, and that’s me. I’m not Jewish, and, candidly, if I were, I probably wouldn’t mix religious observance with a self-improvement binge, no matter how worthy. But on Saturday, I just might stop the posting and the tweeting and the Facebooking and the Foursquare to have a more important check-in …with myself.

Is Multitasking A Myth?

Like many PR professionals, I consider myself a decent multitasker. I find plenty of ways to justify my surface-skimming ways, including the most obvious excuse, the nature of the agency business. And, yes, I’ve occasionally had a superiority complex about my juggling act. I used to work with someone who never tried to take on more than one thing at a time. He moved methodically from each task to the next in tunnel-vision mode. Nothing – no rings, pings, beeps, or people rushing to the doorway signaling frantically- seemed to distract him. To me, his work habits were anachronistic, and, on occasion, wildly frustrating.

A new study might just give multitaskers our comeuppance, however. Communications professors at Stanford University divided a group of undergraduates into “light” and “heavy” multitaskers and assessed them on essential skills, like memory and focus. Their conclusion? Those who multitask the most are by far the worst at it. The heavy multitaskers had particular trouble switching from one task to another…pretty significant, considering that’s the very definition of the term. Even more damning, their ability to filter was far inferior to that of the other group. In fact, the uber-multitaskers were in every way inferior to the light multitaskers.

Clearly, the study has implications for all of us who think we’re getting by with an attention-deprived approach to everything. And, it contradicts the New York magazine story I blogged about only last spring. The story defends our national distractability and outlines the benefits of overstimulation – creativity, efficiency – even something called neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt to more and more information over time.

Now, as with most studies like the Stanford one, are there plenty of unanswered questions. Where do cause and effect come in? Is the poor cognitive functioning caused by too much stimulation, or is there something in multitaskers’ brains that make them want to watch TV, listen to music, and write their thesis while texting friends? The research team implies that heavy users of media and information might have a voracious hunger for information for its own sake, not in order to process and use it. (Do I smell Multitaskers Anonymous, a 12-step program in only three easy steps?) At any rate, the Stanford researchers profess to be so astonished by the result of their study that they’re planning new ones designed to identify what multitaskers might be good at and probe more deeply into the reasons for their behavior.

But, does the study really surprise anyone? It’s pretty obvious that we reach a point of diminishing returns when we take on too much simultaneously. When I really think about it, my most effective technique isn’t continuous partial attention, but the task-by-task, out-of-my-way urgency that’s my default under extreme time pressure. It feels like juggling, but it’s really ruthless unitasking, like a machete that cuts a swath through thick jungle growth.

What I find most entertaining about the study, however, is the researchers themselves. They don’t mince words. For an academic, Professor Clifford Nass uses pretty casual language, and he’s not afraid of a sweeping statement. “This shocked the heck out of us,” he keeps saying. He tells The New York Times, “high multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy” and sums it up by calling them “lousy at everything.”

Ouch. No cautious research-speak here. Could this guy be a unitasker with a grudge? More likely a savvy professor with a flair for PR.

Zen And The Art of Mindful Multitasking

Do I have your attention? I didn’t think so.

In a world of hyperlinked blogs, pop-up emails, and 140-character updates, it’s natural to wonder about attention span, and whether ours is stretched to the limit. In the agency business, “attention-shifting” is a professional hazard and practically a pre-requisite for success.  I blame the business, and my mentors, for my own attention deficit. One was a very talented man with whom every business conversation detoured into off-color jokes, office gossip, or dating advice. His fractured focus, along with my multiple-client load, seemed to chip away at the steely mental discipline that had helped me so much as a student. At least, that was my excuse.

My other excuse is nearly six years old.  I can’t be the only mom who thinks the phrase “continuous partial attention” was coined for her. And, who hasn’t watched their child toggle among PC games, Wii, TV, music, and email without wondering if it will cripple her ability to focus?

That’s why the New York Magazine May 28 cover story on the “attention crisis” caught my notice. Its point is that distraction might even be good for us, given the brain’s ability, more than any other organ, to adapt to experience. For kids, at least, this is significant.  Some research indicates that those “digital natives” who grow up acclimated to multiple conversations and tasks might stretch the brain’s attention capacity to greater levels than ever before.  It’s a little like Buddhist monks whose daily meditation alters mental processes and enables them to engage in “mindful” multitasking.

There are benefits to our distracted state. Digression among co-workers helps us feel comfortable, build relationships, and tap different parts of the mind. It also enhances the ability to link and synthesize things that aren’t necessarily related.  In other words, it fosters creative thinking.

Come to think of it, my attention-impaired ex-boss is among the most creative people I’ve ever worked with – no small thing in a business that markets new ideas. And my daughter seems able to tune out any distraction when engaged in her favorite pastimes.  Even while writing this, I’ve ignored emails, filtered out calls and content feeds, and shifted my attention for two calls and a meeting, where the conversation seemed linked to these very topics. Synthesis, or selective consciousness?  Who knows, but I’m sure it’s not too late for my neural pathways to adapt.  Next up, maybe even “mindful Twittering.” On that, I’ll have to get back to you.