Dorothy Crenshaw June 15, 2009 | 03:19:54
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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.

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