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Do Modern Handheld Devices Cause “Technology-Assisted Distraction Syndrome”?

This is a frustration that has been voiced be many freelancers and business people:

My biggest frustration is with high level executives who want their project done yesterday but can’t seem to put their Blackberry down for five minutes when you finally get some face to face time with them. I know many of these folks like to think they can be more effective by multitasking but in my opinion the majority of them are shortchanging both the person they are emailing and the person who is trying to have a meaningful discussion with them. There is definitely an art to effectively getting someone to pay attention these days with so many portable distractions. To tactfully tell someone you need their full attention is not always easy.

I can totally understand that some high level executives can’t pay attention in meetings because they are constantly playing with their Blackberries. However, this isn’t a problem that is only present with high level executives, but it constantly surrounds us. I recently read a fascinating article on a CBS News Opinion page that describes this kind of constant fascination with technology and devices as “TADS (technology-assisted distraction syndrome).” (Lochhead, 2009). The author, Christopher Lochhead writes, “The combo-platter non-stop news media, social networking, and our celebrity obsession has created the fastest shrinking natural resource in the world: Attention…We are living in a here today, gone later today world…In business no one pays attention in meetings anymore. With laptops and iPhones always on, people keep their heads-down and disappear into a world of e-minutia. Who among us is not guilty of being on the phone, watching TV, and surfing the Web – all at the same time?” (Lochhead, 2009).

In a meeting, the presenter must be totally focused on the presentation, but where does that leave the listener? More often than not, if technology is not banned from the meeting, at least a handful of people will be on their Blackberries or laptops. We often use these devices as a disguise for “work,” or to “increase our productivity,” when really we’re just distracting ourselves from focusing on the task at hand, by answering messages or getting the latest news scoops. Heather Clancy, on SmartPlanet.com writes, “It seems as if we are raising and developing a whole society full of people who have attention-deficit disorder. Indeed, it is almost a prerequisite for getting ahead in today’s corporate world.” (Clancy, 2009). In fact, Lochhead relates the corporate world’s TADS to that of teenagers who are constantly distracted and “rarely if ever, paying attention to anything non-electronic for very long.” (Lochhead, 2009).

Both authors have strong words for tackling T.A.D.S. Clancy suggests completely banning mobile gadgets from important meetings as Computer Associates’ did with email years ago “so people could focus on intrapersonal relationships and (OMG), their actual jobs.” (Clancy, 2009). Lochhead writes, “It’s time to declare a war on TADS. We must use social technologies to enhance our lives, not become our lives.” (Lochhead, 2009).

I think that it could be a good idea to set up some ground rules about client meetings, including things like “no Blackberries allowed.” As Clancy writes, “not only is that just plain rude it is just plain counterproductive.” (Clancy, 2009). Clients hire designers to do a job for them, and part of that job requires their attention to the tasks just as much as it requires designers’ attention. How can they expect a good end result if they aren’t present in the development phases? But, the TADS circle is continuous in that, as Lochhead writes, “We struggle to gain the attention of others, as we pay less, and less attention to each other.” (Lochhead, 2009). Therefore, if we want our clients to give us their undivided attention, we should do likewise and give them our undivided attention when they require it. We may even need to lead by example, because chances are, many people are still oblivious to their own Technology-Assisted Distraction Syndrome.

What about you?

What do you think of Technology-Assisted Distraction Syndrome? Do you suffer from it? Have you ever been in a meeting or talked with someone who suffers from it? What can be done to overcome it?


Lochhead, Christopher. (2009, Jul 20). The New Tech Tic. On CBS News Opinion. Retrieved June 6, 2010 from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/07/20/opinion/main5175086.shtml

Clancy, Heather. (2009, Jul 23). Dare to demand attention: Ban that Blackberry, er iPhone, er gadget from meetings. On SmartPlanet.com. Retrieved June 6, 2010 from http://www.smartplanet.com/business/blog/business-brains/dare-to-demand-attention-ban-that-blackberry-er-iphone-er-gadget-from-meetings/1258/

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