In the technology era, we are all finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate for long periods of time on one task. Between text messages and phone messages, email, Facebook and other social media, we are constantly responding to communications from all directions. Our brains must continually adjust to these different technologies and forms of communication. Gloria Mark of the University of California at Irvine found that, in the workplace, the average employee gets around 11 minutes to focus on a task before being interrupted. It then takes around 25 minutes to return one’s focus to the original task.
This has been a long-term trend, and there are many suspected culprits. Some believe that television, with commercials interrupting programming every 8 minutes or so, lessened our attention span. Later, popular music videos, where the camera angles changed every few seconds, were blamed for a generation of teenagers who had difficulty concentrating on anything, and still later our obsession with Twitter and texting has created a world in which few people appear to be able to concentrate on any topic for more than a minute. Consider: In 1858, Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas for an Illinois Senate seat; Lincoln’s opening statement comprised more than 8,750 words, and he still had about 30 minutes left if he wanted to continue. Even in the 1960 Presidential debates, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon each opened with statements lasting at least 7 minutes. In contrast, during the 2012 presidential primaries, Texas Governor Rick Perry was unable to remember the name of the third Federal Department that he would eliminate, and in general most candidates had difficulty speaking for 2 minutes without looking up in the air or repeating themselves. While brevity can be a virtue – Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one example – the downward spiral of attention spans is a reality.
Research by Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab has shown that we pay a serious cost for these distractions. Another study conducted by Alessandro Acquisti and Eyal Peer, also from Carnegie Mellon, shows that that those who are interrupted are not only slower to complete a task but make 20 percent more mistakes than those who are interrupted less frequently; that’s the difference between a B student (80) and a D student (60). In medicine and other fields, this effect of distraction can lead to fatal mistakes. Think of what can happen if someone behind the wheel in the car behind you decides to start texting to avoid the tedium of driving, or if a clinician is too bored to read a patient’s medical history and symptoms. There are severe physical dangers when people are distracted and bored.
The rabbis also taught about the spiritual dangerous of distractions. For example, Avot 3:9 records the following teaching: “Rabbi Yaakov said: One who walks on the road while reviewing (a Torah lesson) but interrupts his review and exclaims ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!’ – Scripture considers it as if he bears guilt for his soul.”
Losing focus in our intellectual endeavors can lead to spiritual damage. On the other hand, in The Gay Science, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche explained the importance of intellectually interacting with the world and the value even of distractions:
We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors—walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful. Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or a musical composition are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?
We miss so much when we immerse ourselves in our own mundane activities. In January 2007, the Washington Post conducted an experiment in a Metro station lobby. The Post persuaded violinist Joshua Bell, who has recorded about 40 CDs, won several Grammys, has played at the most prestigious music festivals and with the finest orchestras in the world, and has appeared in more popular venues such as on Sesame Street, to play for 45 minutes during the morning rush hour. The purpose was to see how people would react to one of the world’s finest musicians playing his Stradivarius violin while wearing jeans and a baseball cap. Bell played several pieces, including a portion of a Bach Partita, that did not contain catchy tunes but did reward the listener who stayed for any period of time. The compressed YouTube video documented that more than 1,000 people passed the noted violinist without paying any attention, and only seven people stayed for even a minute. One person finally recognized him from his recent concert at the Library of Congress. Are we so immersed that we cannot recognize artistic genius? Are we so tied to appearances that we cannot hear? Do we tune out music if it does not have an instantly recognizable tune, or because we are glued to our own ear buds? We can speculate on the reasons, but it does not bode well for our society if people are so concerned with their immediate activities that they ignore the rest of the world. Can we remake the world if we are too distracted to notice it?
There are clearly some benefits to cultivating the new art of hyper-multi-tasking and there are times and places where we should lose ourselves in the great distractions of the world, but to be effective and successful we also need times of great focus. Even further, to be spiritually attuned, we need times of wholeness without constant fracturing interruptions. In fact, the Ramban argues that we miss some of the most significant revelations in our lives because we have not prepared our hearts (Exodus 3:2). To truly be spiritually alive, we must take the time in transitions to emotionally prepare ourselves to have periods of intense focus and concentration or we risk missing precious gems below the surface of reality. We need not get rid of technology, or dismiss its incredible value for a moment. We do not need techno-abstinence. But what we must learn is some techno-moderation and how to reduce external stimuli at times to awaken our internal worlds.
Rabbi Dr Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”