This summer, I worked at my first real-world job. Forty-hour weeks, company-provided computer, something resembling an office: the whole shebang. Though I was working at a pretty technology-positive company—Microsoft!—I still quickly discovered that my working habits required some explanation. Fifty browser tabs open at once, music softly playing in headphones, cell phone parked firmly by my keyboard: I can understand why my co-workers might have been curious.

What ever happened to old-fashioned “discipline?” This question has come up constantly in my conversations with parents and teachers over the course of my involvement with the Digital Natives project. When parents glance over and see not only 50 browser tabs open on the family computer, but iTunes and a computer game and AIM too—with a book report relegated to a tiny corner of the screen—they’re understandably bewildered. How do kids ever get anything done? “I’m just really good at multi-tasking, Mom,” a savvy student might reply. And, as long as the work gets done, it seems hard to argue with that logic.

However, as a new wave of research on the science of attention makes the rounds of blogs and the popular press, that logic is becoming more vulnerable. In an interview over at Lifehacker recently, Dave Crenshaw discussed his latest book, The Myth of Multitasking. Crenshaw makes a strong distinction behind “background tasking”—reading a magazine while waiting in line, for instance, or listening to music while coding—and “switch-tasking.” Most of the time, when we talk about “multi-tasking,” we’re actually talking about the very costly practice of “switch-tasking.” Every time you switch your attention from one place to another—even from one browser window to another—you take a significant hit to your focus. Though this may seem to be common sense, the science behind the phenomenon is quite sobering. Early in the summer, I attended a talk by neuroscientist John Medina—author, most recently, of Brain Rules—at which he also debunked the “myth of multitasking.” Switch-tasking, he definitively proves, causes you to execute each task more slowly than you would otherwise, with more errors. (Charts and more information here.)

So what, then, is the solution? Specifically, what can parents, teachers, and employers do to help their kids, students, and employees focus their attention more effectively? As a kid, student, and employee myself, I have to say that I believe the solution is emphatically not to limit access—at least not for older teens. Rather, I think the key lies in laying out the facts and discussing strategies. Information overload and the allure of infinite access, after all, are challenges that affect everyone with an internet connection—not just young people. And, though writing a stellar book report might not be a cause compelling enough to warrant total focus, every young person will at some point find a pursuit worth paying attention to. Maybe it’s writing short stories; maybe writing music. Maybe it’s making art. But when that pursuit comes along, they’re going to want to know how to firewall their attention, focus their efforts, and—for once—stop switching. Tools like Freedom, the WiFi-disabler for Macs, can help. But ultimately, no strategy will be effective without the investment of the person executing it. The best strategy, I believe, is actually to help Digital Natives to discover pursuits worth focusing on in the first place. The rest, I think—I hope—will follow.

What are your strategies for “firewalling” your attention? Have you ever staged an attention intervention? What will it take to convince companies to stop venerating “multi-tasking” as a worthy skill? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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