Saturday, June 2, 2012

Inattention, Distraction and Other Sins

It used to be called sloth. Now we call it inattention to details.

Everyone is distracted. Some are distracted by electronic gadgets that demand instantaneous attention. Others are so completely absorbed in their own minds that they ignore what is going on around them. Still others are in such a hurry that they skirt the details, miss the significant data, and turn out a shabby product.

And then there are a last group: people who are doing so many things that they cannot focus on one thing at a time. They might think that they are multitasking; they have made inattention into a way of life.

Inattention can mean sloth, but it can also involve the kind of hubris that tells us that we can function effectively when we overextend, overcommit, and overeach.

Writing in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Holly Finn explained how medical schools are trying to teach attentiveness.

They do it by teaching medical students to look at art, to discern the details in a painting, and to ask questions about why this hand is in this position and that hand is not in that position.

The exercise requires focus and concentration. It is an excellent skill to develop. One can only hope that art history courses teach it as well.

Physicians need the training, Finn explains, because they tend to jump to conclusions. They short-circuit the meticulous data-gathering that makes for the best diagnosis.

Apparently they do this because they want to be the best; they want to be the first to get the right answer.

They may not realize it, but they are also being lazy. The quicker you get the right answer the less time you have to spend on the job. The less time you’re at work the more time you have to engage in leisure-time activities.
In the past decade, Finn explains, our attention span has been halved from 12 to 5 minutes.

If we had been willing to take the time and make the effort to pay close attention, we could have avoided many problems. 

In Finn’s words:

That J.P. Morgan Chase trader known as the "London Whale"—could he have been caught by a keener-eyed boss? How about the Secret Service scandal—would more astute overseers have spotted the signs? And the Pope's butler—nobody saw that coming? Across the board, our perceptiveness has plummeted.

In our judgment-free culture we say that these people were distracted and inattentive. I prefer to say that they are being lazy and slothful.

Casting the problem as a moral failing  incites us to change. If we consider inattentiveness a byproduct of our fast-paced techno-age, we will have less of an incentive to fix it. Better yet, we will be defining ourselves as powerless to change. Considering the forces arrayed against attentiveness, how can any mere mortal change his personal behavior.

How did we get so sloppy and slothful? One reason must be, that as the Protestant work ethic was undermined, we bought the idea that leisure is the meaning of life and that a good life is one where we are lying around a beach worshiping the sun.

Devaluing the work ethic means seeing work as a means to an end... that end being leisure.

Have you noticed that the words “lazy” and “leisure” sound a lot alike? It’s almost as though we are trying diminish the moral failing associated with laziness by making it into a reward: leisure.

Having enhanced the value of leisure we assume that we are right to have more and more of it. It's part of the ethos of entitlement. We believe that we have a right to retire early and often, the better to enjoy the best things in life.

It is rare that anyone tells you that the earlier you retire the more likely you are to die young.

Some people are chronically inattentive because they are doing too much; they are overextended and confused. Many people slack off on their jobs because they have several other jobs: caring for children and running a household.

They certainly do not appear to be suffering from sloth. They do not indulge their love of leisure. In truth, they never have any leisure. They never stop.

Their sin or flaw is hubris, the arrogant pride that says you can do or be it all.

True enough, a human being can hold down a job and run a household and bring up children. If that person’s attention is divided between home and office, he or she will be less attentive than someone who does not have multiple jobs.

A woman who is unmarried and/or childless will normally do better in business than will a woman who is married and is raising children.

A man whose wife takes charge of the home front can put in more hours and devote more attention to his job than a man who is sharing household tasks.

In many quarters this will count as heresy. Having bought the gospel of individual fulfillment we believe that we must all be polymaths.

The good life, we imagine, is one that contains a little bit of everything. But, being a little involved in many activities must necessarily compromise our attention on each task.

As a culture we are learning the hard way why there was a division of labor. Dividing tasks allows each individual to devote his or her full attention to a single job. One person can become thoroughly expert in one area while another can do the same in a different.

A culture where we believe that everyone should be able to do everything is one where we are being induced to trust no one.

If your attention is divided, you will be less efficient and effective than someone whose attention is focused and concentrated.

If you are doing too many things you might be good at what you do, but you cannot be great. In a competitive world you cannot be great unless you work longer and harder and more attentively than the competition.

An attentive individual spends extra time trying to excel, trying to perfect a skill, trying to master every detail of his or her brief.

In medical practice attentiveness might involve spending a few extra minutes looking through test results or questioning the patient about his symptoms. It might involve taking the extra time needed to find the better treatment. It certainly involves persevering in the face of enigmatic results.

Without the attention to detail there are no moments of inspiration.

When you look at it in terms of medical training, it becomes a matter of life and death. And yet, the same applies in manufacturing and industry, in advertising and marketing, in athletics and art.

Great athletes train hard. They do not skimp on their reps. They do not think about how much they can get away with.

They focus on the task at hand.

It may look like they are applying their skills effortlessly, but it takes an enormous amount of work to make anything look effortless.

If you look like you are making an effort you are surely suffering from inattention. Stress and strain are not signs of hard work; they show that your mind is not focused on the task at hand but is trying to force itself to focus.

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