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Distraction: A Serious Problem of Modern Life

Here is the irony in writing a piece about distraction. I told myself not to check my email until the column was done, but I did peak at my Facebook because I was awaiting a response...

Here is the irony in writing a piece about distraction. I told myself not to check my email until the column was done, but I did peak at my Facebook because I was awaiting a response. I saw that I had four new friend requests, so in the process of accepting them, I see that another blogger has referenced one of my posts in a recent blog, so I click over to her site.

Oh, and did I mention that I have Mozart blasting away in my ears so that I can drown out the sound of the podcast the woman in front of me at the coffee shop is playing?

I have always known that distraction is a problem for me. When I was a junior in high school, I was taken to a psychologist to be evaluated. He told my mother that my decoding skills (ability to decipher, decrypt, solve, translate) were some of the poorest he'd seen. So, to give myself the best shot at concentration, I'd carry around wax ear plugs and shove those things deeply into my ear canals, to block out the tapping of a pencil next to me or the sigh of the guy three desks away. To keep myself focused on the paper in front of me, I'd visualize a set of blinders for my eyes, and an imaginary fort around desk.

But according to Maggie Jackson, columnist for the Boston Globe and author of the book "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age," there is much more at stake in our culture today because of technology than a few bad test scores and an endemic of decoding problems. Maggie says, "The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention--the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress. Moreover, this disintegration may come at great cost to ourselves and to society....The erosion of attention is the key to understanding why we are on the cusp of a time of widespread cultural and social losses."

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Maggie didn't set out to write a book about distraction and the role of attention to a culture. She was merely curious as to why so many people are stressed out and feel trapped in pressured lives despite all the resources we have as a country. In her research she discovered that despite all the advantages of our technological gadgets, they are bringing about the same problems inherent in the first industrial and high-tech (telegraph, cinema, railway) revolutions. Moreover, she was surprised to learn in her research how central attention is to a culture, and what happens when you let go of the powers of attention.

As for me ... this piece took an additional hour to write because I couldn't resist checking my email, as well as following up my tweets on Twitter and reading my Facebook and LinkedIn mail. I suspect I am a good case in point for Maggie's research. However, all hope is not lost. Says Maggie: "We can create a culture of attention, recover the ability to pause, focus, connect, judge, and enter deeply into a relationship or an idea." We do that attention exercises and using something I have a shortage of lately ... discipline. Or, Maggie says, "we can slip into numb days of easy diffusion and detachment.... The choice is ours."

Therese J. Borchard writes the daily blog Beyond Blue. Her memoir “Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes” is just out, followed by a handsome book of therapy notes called "The Pocket Therapist" in April 2010. Subscribe to Beyond Blue here or visit her at


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