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Acquired Inattention
By Matt Sanderson, President & CEO, SmithBucklin

When my children were in elementary school, my wife volunteered at their Montessori school each Wednesday teaching the young students how to form and pronounce letters and short words in an exercise called “sandpaper letters.” Each child was brought outside the classroom into the hall and given one-on-one, distraction-free instruction. The materials used to teach the lesson consist of a set of flat wood squares, each with sandpaper (i.e., a rough surface) adhered to the wood square in the shape of a letter. The children were asked to trace their fingers over the letter while learning the sound it makes and were ultimately asked to draw the letter form in a small, sand-filled tray. It is a multisensory experience designed to heighten awareness and increase focus on the task at hand.

Learning Requires Focus

Research cited by Prentice Hall suggests that people remember about 20 percent of what they hear, 30 percent of what they see, 50 percent of what they hear and see, and 80 percent of what they hear, see and do. It’s why workshops are more effective than lectures, and it is clearly behind the design of the sandpaper letters activity. Watching these kids focus multiple senses on a simple learning task is inspiring. There is so much capacity for learning outside of the distractions of the preschool classroom. When we focus, we learn. It’s simple, but not easy — especially with all the distractions brought on by constant connectivity.

Focus is a Learned Skill

If focusing was easy, authors of time management books wouldn’t be millionaires. In fact, time management continues to be a hot topic among associations and companies of all sizes. Whether technology, or simply adulthood, is to blame for our collective lack of ability to focus, it appears to be firmly ingrained. I once heard someone refer to this phenomenon as acquired inattention.

And if time management books and courses are an adult phenomenon, high school and college kids have turned, not surprisingly, to an electronic fix. You might have heard that there are software products — one called, ironically, Freedom — that you can buy to temporarily disable your own access to the internet so you can be productive. This product, and others like it, is apparently used by tens of thousands of high school and college students. Why is it so hard to focus in the presence of today’s computers, phones and other gadgets? The answer appears to be rooted in our human hardwiring and has been studied at length by psychologists. But we now find ourselves in a perfect storm of distraction, one that business researchers have estimated costs the U.S. economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.

How is this possible?

1. Humans are easily distracted.
Our primitive ancestors were rewarded (through survival) for being “on their toes” — think noticing a predator moving in the distance and sensing danger in nearby rustling brush. What’s the first thing we do when a baby cries or a child skins his or her knee? We make a face, we laugh, we give them a lollipop. We do something to literally get their minds off it. We do this because it works.

2. Multitasking creates an illusion of efficiency.
Multitasking feels productive, but it is not. In fact, it may have the opposite effect of the efficient assembly line perfected for the automotive industry by Henry Ford during the industrial revolution. It takes our brain time to shift from operating in a productive state at one activity to operating in a productive state at another — as much as 25 minutes per shift in activity, according to one study. The amount of time lost grows the more complex the activity, and more than simply the lost time, research shows multitasking actually hurts cognitive performance. To put this in perspective, a study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London (funded by HP) found that workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice found in marijuana smokers. As shown by the danger posed by cell phone use while driving, we are just not as effective at multitasking as we think we are.

3. It feels good.
Why do people do so much multitasking if it impairs performance? No doubt, in part, as mentioned previously, because we think it improves performance. But can a quest for productivity explain why an estimated 75 percent of Americans have used their mobile phones while in bathrooms? Psychology tells us that there is more in play. It apparently feels good to multitask, which creates positive feelings and greater emotional satisfaction. In troubling research conducted at The Ohio State University, funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, college students who multitasked while studying (e.g., reading a book while watching TV, checking text messages while doing homework) were both less effective at learning and more likely to resort to multitasking while studying in the future because of the emotional reward that comes from it.

Focus Requires Commitment

Christine Rosen, senior editor of The New Atlantis and author of “The Myth of Multitasking,” among other works about the social and cultural impact of technology, wrote, “When we talk about multitasking, we are really talking about attention: the art of paying attention, the ability to shift our attention, and more broadly, to exercise judgment about what objects are worthy of our attention.” I recommend reading this sentence a few times, especially the last part about judgment.

If you are reading this article, I encourage you to ask a few tough questions of yourself about focus. What would happen if I stopped doing X? What would happen if I started doing more Y? If I could allocate my time toward those things that had the greatest expected impact on my business, my volunteer activities or my life, how would I spend it? Are activities getting in the way of outcomes? Isn’t it the search for that level of efficiency that motivates multitasking in the first place? Where does this multitasking world end in this supposed knowledge economy of the future? Do you like what you see? I don’t.

Associations and their boards face many challenges in their roles, among them how to prioritize activities and efforts. If you, your fellow board members and your staff teams were more focused, less distractible, could you accomplish more? Achieve greater outcomes for your members?

The answer is clearly yes.

We would all be well served to take a chapter out of the Montessori handbook in our daily work.

  Matt Sanderson is president & CEO of SmithBucklin. Throughout his career he has served clients and led change — including both growth and performance-improvement efforts. He joined SmithBucklin in 2010 and, most recently, served as executive vice president & chief executive of SmithBucklin’s Business + Trade Industry Practice. Matt holds a Master of Business Administration in finance from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor of Arts in economics from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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