Undivided Attention
tom walsh


I was recently looking to buy a new printer, and I went to Office Max to see what kinds of printers they had to offer.  I had a couple of questions about their wireless capabilities, so when one of the guys who worked there came over and asked if I needed help, I said yes and asked him a question.

I was about halfway through the question when he asked "Which operating system are you using?"

I was a bit taken aback that he had interrupted the question before I had even finished it, and a bit perplexed that he was asking a question that had nothing to do with my question.  It wasn't until I looked back up at him that I realized that he was talking on the phone with someone through the Bluetooth unit perched so prominently on his ear.

He had asked me if I needed help, while he was supposedly "helping" someone else on the phone.  It was ridiculous, and I told him that I was fine and that I'd figure out my questions on my own.  He looked at me a bit surprised, and asked, "Are you sure?"  I said yes--after all, what good can he do me when he's not even focused on what he's doing?

I'm constantly amazed at the number of people I see spending "quality" time with their kids, only to pull out the cell phone and have a long and involved conversation with someone who isn't even there.  

The poor kid is relegated to the status of ignored companion, unless they do something they shouldn't do, when the adult will take two seconds from the conversation to say "Knock that off!"

It makes me wonder if today's little kids will have to become even more destructive and anti-social in order to gain the attention that they crave.

In spite of the reams of evidence that cell phone use while driving is incredibly dangerous (at least 2600 people DIE every year because of it), many, many people still insist upon carrying on phone conversations while behind the wheel in traffic.  (See http://www.drivinglaws.org/stats.php and http://www.drivinglaws.org/top10/10-reasons.php.)  Tens of thousands of people have lost their husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers. . . . you name it, only because someone thought "It'll never happen to me."  Those people were wrong, and they've killed other people because they weren't willing to give their undivided attention to the task at hand, which was driving.

Why are we so unwilling--and almost unable--to give our undivided attention to the tasks that we do?  All throughout our culture and society, we see declines in the quality of work and the service, and much of this is due to the fact that people seem to think that multi-tasking isn't just a new norm, but a necessity.

In the United States, at least, we used to have a very strong work ethic, and we used to teach our kids to be proud of the results of their work.  We much more often focused on outcomes, and because we wanted it to be positive, we learned to put our undivided attention to the task we had taken on.  When a parent spent time with a child, they spent time together, talking or playing or just going for a long walk.  Nowadays, though, parents seem to resent this distraction that keeps them from watching their TV and spending time on the phone talking about trifles.  So they compromise by being there physically with the kid, but certainly not there emotionally or mentally for  the kid.

In the classroom, in spite of all the people who glorify the idea of multi-tasking, I find that the students who are able to sit down and focus on the assignment are the ones who succeed in learning the material.  Because of that, I spend a lot of time in class teaching kids how to focus, and believe it or not, these kids appreciate that.  Over and over again, these teenagers thank me for helping them to learn how to study, because no one else ever had tried to do so.  Most teachers are so intent on the assignments that they never pay attention to whether or not their students are even able to focus on the material they're supposed to be learning.

And with the role models that these young people have, is it any surprise that they have a hard time focusing?  Whom have they seen who models the ability to put their undivided attention on a task?  Even many pro athletes don't focus on their sports exclusively any more--during games, watch how many NFL players are just as interested in the crowd and the cameras as they are in the game.  And those are the ones that the networks give the most camera time to. . . .

I know many people who are almost never satisfied with the results that they get in life, whether that be at work, with their hobbies, in their relationships, or in other areas.  Most of these people don't get the results they desire because while they're doing something, they're also focused on something else.  Is a conversation with your wife as valuable when you're also watching a TV show?  Is time spent with your teenager going to be as valuable if you--or her--spend most of your time on the phone with someone else?  Can you really get your work done well if you're also surfing the Internet?  These are questions that most of us never seem to address--and probably because we already know the answer, and we just don't really want to hear it.


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