Friday, August 28, 2009

The Value of Focus

I’ve always been blessed with a fairly long attention span. I’m grateful for this gift. It has served me well in my life.

There are times when I’m doing something I don’t want to do, however, when I have difficulty staying focused. Other, more interesting, appealing tasks beckon me to stray from the task at hand.

I’ve noticed with a lot of kids in today’s younger generations that they have great difficulty doing one thing at a time. Some even brag about the ‘new ability’ to ‘multitask’ that young people claim to have.

As a champion multitasker, I take issue with their claim to some ‘new’ ability. Anyone who stops to think about it will also realize that effective multitasking is most often actually fast paced serial monotasking.

Being able to multitask is a great skill, it’s true. It must, however, be balanced with an ability to focus, single-mindedly at times. I see this as sorely lacking in some of our kids today. They don’t know how to NOT multitask.

They IM their friends (sometimes more than one at a time) while they work on their computers and listen to music – all at the same time. I wonder about the ‘quality of thought’ that this actually produces.

When sitting with a young person recently, watching them work on their college applications, I got quickly annoyed that they were having a couple IM conversations while we were trying to work on the task at hand. When I suggested they close the window, they pointed out that the other party would simply open another window. Maybe this kid just thought I was an ignorant old person… but I said, “SO LOG OFF!!!”

Finally we settled into the task in front of us. It was not trivial to get the kid to STOP distracting himself with his IM sessions. It’s natural, normal and comfortable for him to do that.

What I notice, however, is that tasks don’t get done well, and tasks requiring full concentration seem particularly challenging to today’s young people. This worries me a lot.

I don’t want a multitasking surgeon operating on me, or reviewing my latest lab tests. I don’t want a dentist IMing with his buddies while he’s drilling on my teeth. I don’t want someone designing the steering of my car to be doing 3 other things at the same time.

The fast paced, technology laced lives we lead are interesting and wonderful. Those of us who existed BEFORE all this ‘instant’ everything have a bit more of an ability to balance things out. We need to be careful with our kids, however, that we require them to focus SINGLEMINDEDLY once in a while, and we don’t always let them distract themselves in too many directions at one time.

Focus is something that every successful human being needs to be able to do. It’s important for us all to nurture that ability in ourselves, and most especially in the young people around us!