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Posted on Harvard Business Review: November 23, 2010 11:16 AM
One of the greatest gifts you can give your kids is help in foregoing immediate gratification, by setting boundaries for them and by modeling the behavior yourself.
That's also one of the greatest gifts you can give to those you lead or manage.
I got to thinking about all this after reading "Growing up Digital: Wired for Distraction," Matt Richtel's superb, often heartbreaking front page article in Sunday's New York Times. It's about the effect of all the new technology on the attention span of kids.
Compelling as it was, I suspect few read to the end of the article. It was long, and we ourselves are struggling with the same issue our kids are. Just last week, I wrote about it under the headline "Warning: Your Attention is Under Siege."
When it comes to the impact of our increasing obsession with being connected electronically, kids are simply an exaggerated version of the rest of us. They're also more honest about the costs.
By staying relentlessly busy sending thousands of text messages a day, playing endless hours of video games, and checking Facebook every three minutes, kids are addressing two core needs. They're eliciting brief, tiny bits of gratification and reassurance, and avoiding loneliness and fear. "Video games don't make the hole," a student named Sean McMullen poignantly tells Richtel. "They fill it."
The most obvious cost is that when they're preoccupied with technology for entertainment or escape, kids aren't engaged in learning or any sort of complex thinking.
In one recent study, 47 percent of heavy users of technology were found to have poor grades, versus 23 percent of light users. The kids Richtel describes struggle at school nearly in direct proportion to the amount of time they spend online.
The analogy at offices is that most of us are quick to shift attention from our work every time we hear the "ping" of a new email that promises instant gratification (but rarely delivers). Email also interrupts whatever else we're doing. When we turn attention from one task to focus on another, it dramatically increases the time it takes to finish the first task, and adds to the number of mistakes we make.
Nothing better fuels high quality work and productivity, or makes us feel more satisfied, than deeply immersing ourselves in a task. But really focusing requires resisting the instant gratification of other distractions, and that takes effort.
There are lessons here for parents, but also for leaders.
First, model the behaviors you hope to see. If you're forever on your iPhone, or watching TV, your kids get that message. If you're always looking over at your computer screen when you're meeting with people, they too get the message.
Second, recognize that these technologies are as addictive as any other drug or diversion that provides an instant hit of pleasure and/or an escape from pain.
"Sometimes I'll say: I need to stop this and do my schoolwork, but I can't," Vijay Singh tells Ritchel, echoing his friends. Parents must set firm boundaries restricting the use of electronics.
It's not about banning them, which is unrealistic and extreme, but rather about helping kids to regularly experience the deeper satisfaction that comes from becoming truly absorbed in and mastering a complex challenge.
Leaders, meanwhile, need to encourage their employees to turn off email entirely at times, in order to focus uninterrupted attention on their most difficult tasks.
Third, parents and teachers alike ought to encourage a new way of working. Whether it's for homework or for office work, the best way to get things done is in periods of interrupted work no longer than 90 minutes, followed by true renewal.
We embed, contextualize, and synthesize learning during downtime—which is what we've sacrificed in our addiction to constant connection.
The new technologies aren't going away, nor should they. The real issue is whether we can learn to manage them more skillfully, so they don't end up managing us. Who's going to lead the way?
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