Distraction Contagion

An “Intimate” Dinner for Two

I’m sitting next to Jim at our favorite neighborhood restaurant. We’re having a quiet dinner, just the two of us after a rough day.  I’m looking forward to sharing my news and hearing what he has on his mind.

Just as I open my mouth to talk, that really annoying “ding” signals that he has an incoming call.

“Hold on,” he mouths as he pulls the phone out of his pocket.

“Hello,” he says loudly. He’s radiating intense energy as he speaks firmly to the person on the line.

After a few minutes, I get impatient so I pull my phone out and start checking email.

Moments later, he hangs up. By then I’m deep in thought as I respond to an urgent email. I’m glad I got a chance to check on that. Who knows if I had waited until the morning?

At that point, both of us are so distracted that it’s hard to get back on track with our plans for a quiet dinner.  Has that ever happened to you?

In today’s society, this seems to be the norm rather than the exception. I’m seriously wondering what the impact is on the quality of our relationships.

The Truth About Multi-Tasking

Most people are aware of the effects of multi-tasking on their own attention. There’ve been lots of articles in the media about this. For example, research has shown that it’s impossible to truly multi-task. What we’re really doing is “serial tasking.” And there’s a cost.

According to Ann Herrmann-Nehdi, CEO of thinking organization Herrmann International, “There’s at least a 50% increase in error rate and it takes you 50% longer to do something while multitasking.” More errors, less efficiency.

That’s not the only cost. Retention (i.e., learning) goes down significantly. And it only takes a little bit of distraction to compromise retention.  

I was once on a conference call and trying to pack for a business trip at the same time. A week later, I couldn’t remember most of the conversation, including an important decision the group had made. Even something as routine as packing for a trip claimed too much attention to fully focus on the call.

Distraction Contagion?

The effects of distraction are troubling enough when it’s just me I’m concerned about. But, I’m coming to believe we are also affected by the distraction of others.

I haven't done any formal research on this yet. I have had recent experiences where the distraction of someone sitting near me was palpable. Sitting next to Jim while he's checking email, voice mail and the steps he’s walked that day leaves me mentally scattered and physically unsettled.  Even when he puts his phone away and settles down for real conversation, I’m left feeling as if I’d just stepped down from a roller coaster ride.

If real connection is something we seek in our lives, let’s pay close attention (while we still can!) to the effect of our ever-present portable electronics on our capacity to make and sustain that connection.