Our technology-rich world has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. While on the one hand we have access to information or people anywhere at any time, on the other hand we find our attention constantly drawn by the rich, multisensory, technological environments. It all started with the graphical user interface that took us from the flat, two-dimensional text-based environment that operated on a line-by-line basis similar to a typewriter, to a small picture depicting an operation or program. From there it was a short hop to a completely multisensory world appealing to all of our visual, auditory, and tactile or kinesthetic senses. We now see videos in high definition, often in simulated 3-D. We hear high-definition stereo sounds that feel as crisp as sounds in the real world. Our devices vibrate, shake, rattle, and roll, and our attention is captured. It is no accident that we now attach specific ringtones and vibrations to certain people to grab our attention. When Larry D. Rosen hears that piano riff from his iPhone he knows it must be either his fiancée or one of his four children, and he grabs the phone before the end of the first few notes. As B.F. Skinner would say, he has been positively reinforced on a fixed-ratio schedule, as it is almost always a positive experience to talk to any of them. On the other hand, several people in his contact list have an “alarm” ringtone, which causes the exact opposite visceral reaction, and he reaches for the button to ignore the call.
Our technology continues to find ways to attract our attention because this is what brings “eyeballs,” and the common marketing wisdom is that eyeballs bring money. As you glance at your iPhone you see little red circles with white numbers indicating that something awaits you: four unread email messages, 10 Facebook notifications, and so many reminders that your mind is overwhelmed with which icon to tap first. Your iPad does the same, as does your laptop, which particularly taunts you with numerical notifications of unread messages, flashing icons telling you that you need to back up your computer files, and on and on.
We appear to have lost the ability to simply be alone with our thoughts.
Media multitasking—which is accomplished by your brain not performing two tasks simultaneously but instead by rapidly switching from one task to another—occurs in every sphere of our world including home, school, workplace, and our leisure life. And this is not just limited to the younger generation. A recent study followed a group of young adults and a group of older adults who wore biometric belts with embedded eyeglass cameras for more than 300 hours of leisure time.1 While the younger adults switched from task to task 27 times per hour—once every two minutes—the older adults were not all that great at maintaining their attention either, switching tasks 17 times per hour, or once every three to four minutes. Former Microsoft executive Linda Stone dubbed this constant multitasking “continuous partial attention.”2 Frequent task switching is something we all do, and the more often we switch, the more detrimental it is to our real-world performance.
Unless you monitor someone’s computer as well as his or her smartphone and all his or her other devices, it is difficult to know how much task switching is truly occurring. However, several studies have used different research tools to try to assess real-world task switching. For example, in a recent study Rosen’s lab observed students—ranging from middle school to college age—studying for 15 minutes in an area where they normally study. Shockingly, students could not focus for more than three to five minutes even when they were told to study something very important.3 This study replicated work by Gloria Mark and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, who observed that IT workers were similarly easily and frequently interrupted.4