Let’s Hear It For Distraction

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about an article in New York Magazine called In Defense of Distraction. Because it helps to dispel some misconceptions about attention and distraction it’s a pretty useful article for those working with teens to read.

Some of my favorite points and quotes from the article include:

  • When talking about those who lament the number of distractions people of all ages are faced with, Sam Anderson, the author of this article writes, “Our jobs depend on connectivity. Our pleasure-cycles—no trivial matter—are increasingly tied to it. Information rains down faster and thicker every day, and there are plenty of non-moronic reasons for it to do so. The question, now, is how successfully we can adapt.”
    Earlier in the same paragraph Anderson states that “the horse has already left the barn.” That is absolutely true, the teens that we work with live in a distraction-based world. If that’s the case, do we lament that and try to force them not to be a part of that world? Or, do we figure out how to integrate the distractions into the lives of teens and help them to learn how to use distraction to their advantage?
  • Thinking about that concept of helping teens be smart about distractions brings me to another quote from the article. Anderson writes, “This attentional self-control, which psychologists call executive function, is at the very center of our struggle with attention. It’s what allows us to invest our focus wisely or poorly. Some of us, of course, have an easier time with it than others.” Both teens and adults struggle with executive function. As teen librarians we can help teens succed in this function. One technique I like is to use is to talk with teens about the activities they take part in which doing lots of things at once isn’t an issue and comparing those to the activities they participate in that require singular attention.
  • In the section of the article on lifehacking (defined in Wikipedia as “productivity tricks that programmers devise and employ to cut through information overload and organize their data”) Anderson discusses his interview wit Merlin Mann, a major voice in the lifehacking world, about attention and distraction. Mann’s comments focus on the fact that when people aren’t paying attention it could simply be because they aren’t interested in what’s going on and/or they aren’t happy within another part of their life. I can see how this definitely fits with teens who seem to get distracted when doing homework. Perhaps the assignment is really boring. Or, perhaps, they are having trouble focusing because of things going on in life – boyfriend/girlfriend problems, parent problems, etc. When we worry about how well teens are paying attention to their school work, these barriers to attention are definitely worth keeping in mind. Think about it, when your life isn’t going as well as you would wish, don’t you get distracted from the work you need to do? I bet you do. And, imagine that you are a teen that is navigating the world and trying to figure out where you fit in. Don’t you think that life in general could be distracting?
  • Then there is the idea that focus and distraction can’t live without each other. Anderson writes, “Focus is a paradox—it has distraction built into it. The two are symbiotic; they’re the systole and diastole of consciousness. Attention comes from the Latin “to stretch out” or “reach toward,” distraction from “to pull apart.” We need both. In their extreme forms, focus and attention may even circle back around and bleed into one other.” To me this is definitely true. Sometimes when I’m over-focused I need to take a break and work on something else (or many elses) in order to be able to work more successfully on that one project. It’s not a one or the other proposition. Focus and distraction have to work hand in hand.
  • In the final paragraph of the article Anderson states, “Kids growing up now might have an associative genius we don’t—a sense of the way ten projects all dovetail into something totally new. They might be able to engage in seeming contradictions: mindful web-surfing, mindful Twittering. Maybe, in flights of irresponsible responsibility, they’ll even manage to attain the paradoxical, Zenlike state of focused distraction.” In reality we simply have no idea where the attention/distraction push-pull will lead with teens. I know that we can’t simply consider it all bad. Why don’t we consider the positive implications instead of focusing on the negative?

Ultimately, one of my favorite parts of the article is the content which demonstrates that it’s not right to simply blame technology for being the cause of distraction in teen and adult lives. Anderson points out that there have always been distractions to deal with – cars honking, noise at a party down the street, a loud TV in the next room, and so on. Distraction is not something solely of the Twitter, Facebook, IM, MySpace world. It’s something humans have been dealing with forever. Lets recognize that and give teens credit for being able to handle distraction and give them help at those times when they need to handle it more successfully.

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.
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