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Editorial: The uses of attention

September 24, 2019  By Patrick Flannery

There are productivity impacts from distraction.

My youngest daughter started high school this week and I’m writing this amid much discussion of the Ontario government’s proposal to require high school students to take four courses online in order to graduate. The goal is obviously to save budget dollars, which is needed given the state of the province’s finances, but which hands the teachers’ union a political baseball bat they are going to be able to bludgeon premier Doug Ford with all the way into the next election. I doubt very much the measure will be implemented, since just about everyone seems to feel it’s a bad idea. As far as my daughter’s grandparents are concerned, you might as well suggest the kids stay home and watch sitcoms instead of going to school.

But the surprising thing is, the kids aren’t big on it either. They are actually worried about being able to pass a test after having only watched a teacher lecture online without any of the interaction or help they would receive in person. They view it as a harder way to learn, not to mention one that takes them away from their friends and would probably have to be completed in their personal time after school. This from a generation that socializes almost exclusively on SnapChat.

I’m of two minds, mostly because I know how much corporate training happens online these days. The kids might as well get used to it early.


I was chatting about this with a friend who had been taking some university courses and he commented that half the students were watching YouTube videos at the same time as the lecture and that he didn’t see how they could be paying attention to both. He said they must think they are good at multitasking.

Multitasking. What evils have been visited on the world in that name? The fact is, people cannot multitask. At all. Humans have the ability to direct their attention to one thing at a time and one thing only. “Multitasking” actually means switching attention between different tasks. And the psychological literature is clear that every time this happens, it costs time and productivity. According to studies reported by the American Psychological Association, switching back and forth between tasks makes you slower than usual at every task and adds time in between as the mind prepares itself to make the switch. Some researchers estimated this “switch cost” at up to 40 per cent of productive time, depending on how often people need to switch. The more complex the tasks, the worse the effect. And other research suggests multitasking affects the quality of the work done. For instance, people’s retention of information learned is much lower if their concentration is broken then returned to the topic repeatedly.

People haven’t had any trouble absorbing the idea that multitasking while driving is not a good idea. Yet just about every job application out there includes a requirement for being able to multitask. And schools have gotten on board, allowing kids to use phones in class on the basis that this kind of multitasking is a skill they will need throughout their lives.

I’m going to suggest that you and your employees will do better if allowed to focus on one task at a time for as long as it takes to get the task done. And I’ll also suggest that a living human standing in front of you attracts more attention than a computer screen, and thus is more effective at training your workers.

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