How Do You Teach Kids to Pay Attention?

I was whizzing down a highway in Detroit recently when a driver sped past me, calmly reading a magazine propped up on his dashboard. I was the only person in my car who was surprised.

Another day, I stopped by the business lounge at a Midwest airport, looking for a calm spot to work and think. I found two alcoves in the bustling space labeled "quiet room." But these were the only two areas with televisions, and they were blaring, of course.

We inhabit a climate of distraction. Noisy, humming, cluttered environments now seem near-normal. Multitasking is a national pastime; we feel kind of sheepish doing just one thing. Hyperactivity is a mark of success. We've cultivated overflowing, ceaselessly mobile, split-focus habits of living -- and thinking. Silence isn't golden in this new day.

And yet, the costs of this culture of overload and continuous partial attention are beginning to hit home.

  • The average worker switches tasks every three minutes on average, reports Gloria Mark of the University of California at Irvine. We're spending more than a quarter of the workday dealing with interruptions and their needed recovery time, according to the business consulting firm Basex. And a third of workers say they are so busy or interrupted that they have no time to reflect on or process the work that they do. They have no time to think.

  • Two-thirds of children under six live in homes that keep the TV on half or more of the time, an environment linked to attentional difficulties. Mothers multitask an average of 80 hours a week, up from 40 hours in 1975. Racing from activity to activity, families have little time to sit down to eat, to converse, or to be in the same room. They have no time to be together in the deepest sense of the word.

If we begin to sate ourselves on a steady diet of snippets and glimpses of one another, and begin to mistake techno-fluency and info-skimming with the cultivation of wisdom, we will slip into a dark time, an era of cultural decline.

But what can we do? How can we think and relate deeply in a complex, global culture? I'm cautiously optimistic. For if distraction is an increasingly corrosive element in our culture, then attention is the key to creating a caring, reflective, yet high-tech society. And today, we have the ability to harness our powers of attention more than ever.

Once an enigma, the mechanisms of attention -- with its three pillars of focus, awareness, and judgment -- are now becoming understood. Attention is now seen as akin to an organ system; it has an anatomy, a physiology, and a chemistry.