The Intruder: multitasking in the Era of Distraction

The Intruder: multitasking in the Era of Distraction

In every moment of the day, there is someone who is not there with us, but who speaks with us and solicits us constantly. It appears without warning, interrupts whoever is talking, and constantly changes the conversation. It is the intruder, the one who has made it practically impossible to finish a job, watch a film, or chat at the table without any distractions.

Let’s say things as they are. The smartphone “has turned behaviors, which a few years ago would have been considered as incredibly impolite, into acceptable ones”. These are not my words but those of Ariela Mortara, Professor of Consumer Trends and Society at the International University of Languages and Media (IULM), based in Milan, Italy. She continues, “The possibility of sharing experiences with virtual friends, more than with those right there with you” has made us incapable of getting through an entire meal without WhatsApp, selfies, or email.

Whether it is important, urgent, necessary or for fun, there is always a notification that takes away our focus. It’s a constant interference in our personal and professional life, and a one-way ticket to what has been defined as the era of distraction.

We parents lament about how children today excessively use technology, and we worry about the consequences that this will bear in their lives. But have we looked in the mirror? Have we asked ourselves if we have the same problem?

The truth is that digital dependence is definitely the most transversal addiction. We always have our phones on us, we wait for the stop light to respond to our messages, and even worse, we don’t even look into the eyes of the person with whom we are speaking. Not even our children.

We down talk digital natives, but we are the first who need a technological detox. If it’s true that children don’t learn from what we say, but what we do, the solution is around the corner.

Our world overwhelms us with data and stimuli that is difficult to manage in order to leave the proper space for productivity and creativity. In his book, Focus, Daniel Goleman speaks about the vital role that our attention plays in the way in which we confront life. This subtle, elusive, and invisible mental resource connects us with the world, shaping and defining our experiences.

The ability to do multiple things simultaneously is certainly a resource and a competency, but the exasperation of this “skill” has made us incapable of focusing on one thing at a time. The era of distraction is actually nothing other than the negative evolution of the revered concept of multitasking.

About 47% of professionals identify cell phones as the primary cause of never-ending work meetings and their continually distracted participants. But the most alarming data is that 62% of children feel like they don’t have the complete attention of their own parents when they speak to them. Guess why? Because they are looking at their cell phones!

As usual, the Americans were the first to get the challenge and confront it with a business idea.

They invented Pause, a chicly designed box that blocks wi-fi signals, messages, and incoming calls. Just place your cell phones inside to create distraction-free moments at home, in the office, or at school. It’s an invitation to connect only with the people who are right in front of you, eliminating every virtual activity or conversation.

In the promotional video, people have a cell phone stuck to their faces as they eat, work, and even sleep. “I miss joking around for more than five minutes before we all zone out and check what interesting things other people have said,” says the little boy in the video. He continues, “I’m afraid of the future. If this is us now, when smartphones have only been around for 10 years, what will become of us in another 10 years? 20?”

This simple yet effective idea has an alter ego now in Italy. At Turin’s Eataly, restaurant guests have to drop their phones in a Black Phone Box. Whoever makes it through their entire meal without their cell phone gets dessert for free!

Now let’s try to be objective. Do we really need a $40 sleek box or a group of unknown waiters at a restaurant to remind us that we are there to eat and speak with those in front of us?

If our family time is sacred, if it is important to be productive at work, what is stopping us from leaving our phones in our bags for a half hour? Where is our willpower?

Why do we not choose to have control over the means and tools we use? Isn’t this what we ask our children? Fine then. Let’s be the first to show them that we are capable of using them purposefully and moderately.

If our motivation is weakened to the point of being unable to leave our phone in our coat pocket for an hour, then we should carve out time to be together without screens or Wi-Fi. Let’s take a nice shoebox, decorate it as we wish, and put the intruder on hold.

It’s not simply irony. The time we spend as a family, especially at the table, has an inestimable value for creating family ties. The emotional connection is the greatest protection we can offer our children because it is the means for helping them construct their own identities. This is the type of education that will protect them in life from harmful use of modern technologies and from themselves.

Forming good “digital habits” has the same importance as forming good nutritional, hygienic, or study habits. Nobody wants to demonize technology. I don’t even remember how someone would find an address before Google Maps, but I believe, as my grandmother would say, every excess is defective.

Let us teach our children the value of time and the possibility to consciously make choices; let us help them develop a critical sense. Let us do it with our example, in the time that we spend with them, being there for them 100%. What is shared as a family, at the table, goes a lot further than the food on it. So, let’s put the external distractions on pause and reevaluate that which brings us together, be it warm, constructive or meaningful; that which keeps our emotional bonds steady and draws family members closer together. That which, in few words, makes a family a family!