Eating on the run. Cellphoning while driving. Email avalanches. Distracted living. We prize knowledge work, yet have little time to think. We can contact millions of people worldwide, but have trouble sitting down to chat or eat with those we love. In this wondrous, high-tech, hyper-mobile age, something crucial is missing: attention -- the key to recapturing our ability to connect, reflect, and relax; the secret to coping with an overloaded, boundary-less world. What's needed now is a renaissance of attention. By quelling distraction and strengthening our powers of attention, we can thrive -- not just survive -- in a complex, mutable new age. Think "Planet Focus." Here’s how to get started:

Speak a Language of Attention -- Attention isn't just one thing. It's now considered by most neuroscientists to be a tripartite set of skills made up of focus, awareness, and executive attention, i.e. planning and decision-making. Perhaps most importantly, scientists are beginning to discover that attention can be bolstered through practice and training. There's more research yet to be done on this score, but these initial discoveries can help us thrive in a world of overload. Try deliberately using all your senses to expand your awareness fully when you’re in a new situation, such as a job interview. Or when you are struggling with a tough task, try keeping the "spotlight" of your focus on that challenge, pulling it back if your mind drifts. Think of these attentional skills as different arrows in your cognitive quiver.

Be Wary of Interruptions -- An interruption is much more than a delay in your to-do list. Researchers from the new field of "interruption science" have discovered that knowledge workers switch tasks every three minutes. And once interrupted, a worker takes an average 25 minutes to return to their original task, according to informatics scientist Gloria Mark. Humans are built to be interrupted, since that’s how we stay tuned to changes in our environment. But that means we have trouble pursuing our goals, and even remembering our goals, since our short-term memory is quite limited. Try to turn off the ringers and control the urge to check email constantly if you want to get focused work done.

Practice Message Restraint -- All too often, we are each other’s distractions -- especially when it comes to the floods of messages washing over us daily. The average worker gets 156 emails a day, according to the Radicati research group. And that’s just the beginning; instant-messages, phone calls, faxes and snail mail add to the influx. Jonathan Spira, chief executive officer of the business research firm Basex, cautions people to send only clear, brief, necessary messages, avoid one-word replies such as "Great!", and refrain from duplicating messages in multiple media. "We still have a lot of work to do in managing the knowledge worker’s attention," observes Spira.

Focus on One Another -- We’re so used to splitting our focus between pdas and tvs, and people and tasks that it’s hard to truly attend to any one thing. But continuous partial attention undermines the depth and quality of our relationships and our interactions. When we give each other half-focus in conversations, on conference calls, or at meals, we are effectively saying, "you aren’t worth my time." As well, the "creative energy and critical thinking" that occurs in a good work meeting is lost when everyone's madly checking email, writes Intel principal engineer Nathan Zeldes in an article on the costs of "infomania" in the e-journal First Monday. Focusing in full on one another can help people better connect in a fast-paced, overloaded world.

White Space -- Quelling distractions is both a matter of harnessing our inner resources, i.e. our ability to pay attention, and creating a climate conducive to focus. And today, finding the space to focus is hard. More than half of workers typically have to juggle so many tasks or are so often interrupted that they find it hard to get work done, according to the Families and Work Institute. That’s why a growing number of companies are creating "white space" - physical places or times for uninterrupted thinking or creative thought. In 2005, IBM software engineers began avoiding meetings and even emails or calls on Fridays, so they could concentrate on creative inventing. Now "Think Fridays" are practiced worldwide. Providence, R.I.-based Citizens Financial Group recently made innovation-oriented mini-retreats a part of company life, holding more than 300 such day-long sessions in the past year.

Cut Back on Multitasking -- Americans have made multitasking into a national pastime. Sixty-five percent of people eat while they drive. Sixty percent of kids age eight to 18 multitask some or most of the time they’re doing homework. Who doesn't sneak a peek at email during conference calls? Yet multitasking isn't as easy as it looks, as a growing body of research on the dangers of distracted driving shows. Toggling between tasks slows us down because the brain needs time to switch attention to the new task, disengage from the old work, and decide what resources to use for the new job. Multitasking may also inhibit deeper, flexible learning, research shows. So, try single-tasking if you want to get the job done right.

Eat Mindfully -- We snack, we gulp, we eat power bars on the run. Forty percent of our food budgets are spent eating out, up from a quarter in 1990. Twenty-five percent of restaurant meals are ordered from the car, up from 15 percent in 1988. But this neo-nomadic gastronomy undermines a core aspect of a healthy life -- our ability to taste, sense and share our food. We've fallen into a national habit of mindless eating, which encourages "detachment" from our bodily awareness, says Cornell psychology professor Brian Wansink. Try to take the time to stop and eat, especially with family and friends. And notice the smell, taste and feel of your food. You'll be dialing down on stress and boosting your powers of attention at the same time.

Meditate -- Meditation isn't for everyone, but since it involves a roster of techniques specifically to train attention, this 2,500-year-old practice is timely in an era of distraction and overload. A sub-field of neuroscience is researching the effect of meditation on attention, and some first studies show that meditation can strengthen the three main attentional skills of focus, awareness and executive attention. One study shows that five days of meditation significantly boosted executive attention skills in a group of 40 students in China. Just as beginning pianists practice scales before they tackle Beethoven, so meditation can help us learn how to better control our mind.

Hit the Pause Button -- Americans are in a hurry. We have one of the lowest rates of residential mobility in the post-war era; just 14 percent of Americans move annually. But the average number of miles that Americans drive annually has risen 80 percent in the past 20 years. Forty percent of Americans sleep fewer than seven hours a night. Hyper-mobility is such a cultural value that we scorn the idea of stopping, pausing or stillness. That may be one reason why we get the least vacation time of any developed country, yet a third of Americans don’t take all their days off. Still, racing breathlessly through life, we short-circuit our power of awareness, the cornerstone of our sensitivity to our surroundings. Stop a minute. It won’t hurt a bit.

Be A Role Model for Focus -- If we want to nurture "Planet Focus," we have to cultivate our own attentional skills - and pass it on. Kids today are growing up in a land of distraction. They are exposed on average to nearly six hours a day of non-print media. Two-thirds of children under six live in homes that keep the tv on half or more of the time, an environment linked to attention-deficiencies. Given what we are learning about the lifelong plasticity of the brain and the impact of environment on development, is it any wonder that being immersed in a scattershot world produces scattershot kids -- and adults? Be an attentional role model. Give the gift of your attention. Carve out time for focused thinking and relating -- and speak up against multitasking, interruptions and hyper-hurrying. Rediscover what it’s like to have a long conversation, to sit still, to go beyond what’s first-up on Google. The word "attention" comes from the Latin verb meaning to "stretch toward." It’s not always easy to nurture your attentional skills -- but it’s worthwhile.

©2008 Maggie Jackson

Author's Bio: 

Maggie Jackson is an award-winning author and journalist who writes the popular "Balancing Ads" column in the Boston Globe. Her work also has appeared on National Public Radio and in the New York Times, among other national publications. Her acclaimed first book, What's Happening to Home? Balancing Work, Life, and Refuge in the Information Age, examined the loss of home as a refuge. Her new book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, is currently available from Prometheus Books.