Personal Responsibility and Attention

Two common issues getting a lot of people into psychological (and interpersonal) trouble:

1) They don’t pay attention.

2) They ask others to solve something they’re actually able to solve themselves.

Our culture is drowning in the notion of  “attention deficit disorder.” The label ADD is widely popular and universally recognized as valid, as valid as the common cold. The problem is that ADD’s supposed to be a disorder. A “disorder” refers to an abnormality, or an exception to the norm. If almost everybody identifies with ADD, then isn’t something else going on here? 

I maintain that the widespread identification of most people with “ADD” is a symptom of the fact that most people are simply not paying attention like they should. Why? Clearly, we all have more things competing for our attention. When I think about 20 years ago (since I’m old enough to remember), I think about the things not competing for my attention, back then. For example, there was no Internet. There were no websites. There was no email. We had answering machines, and telephone, but that was about it for sophisticated communication. There was no Facebook, no texting, no instant messaging, no voice mail on three or more different phones. There were cellular “car phones,” but not really cell phones as we know them today.

I’m not knocking technology. In most ways, life is much easier and better with all the technical assistance we have today. But with all these means of attention-grabbing communication, there’s an added responsibility on the individual to manage it all.

For example, ask yourself — and answer — these questions:

Which modes of communication do I need, and which ones can I go without?

How often, or in what way, should I use each of these modes of communication?

Do I need and want to text, or is email enough? Under what circumstance do I need to email, and when do I not? Is Facebook of value to me, and if so in what context? Or do I need Facebook at all?

I’m not telling you how to answer these questions. Answer them rationally and to the best of your knowledge. But my main point is: answer them. Don’t feel you have to answer a certain way, or go a certain way, just because “everyone else is doing it.” First of all, it’s never literally true that everyone else is doing anything. And second, just because “everyone” does something doesn’t automatically make it right or necessary for yourself.

This is the kind of thing meant by the phrase, “Manage your technology, and don’t let your technology manage you.”

People love to blame technology for things. I guess this is because most people just love to blame someone or something else for their own shortcomings or difficulties. It’s something unfortunate about human nature, maybe not every single human individual but too many of us. Interestingly, I don’t see anyone seriously considering giving up the technology. It’s kind of like caffeine or fatty foods. People complain about their existence, but they rarely abstain for long.

I wonder how many fewer problems there would be with “attention deficits” if people took better charge of their technology, as well as all the other things competing for attention in daily life.

The other major problem I see people encounter is being too quick to assign competence to others at the expense of underrating oneself. For example, I know a number of people with online businesses. They sell products or services online. They tell me they’re amazed by the questions they get asking, “How do you do this?” or “Why don’t you have that product available?” when the questions are plainly answered in the instructions or on the website itself. What’s striking is not that this happens, but how often it happens. I routinely hear of cases where people reply to another’s email without having even read the email to which they’re replying (and later admit it). I’m amazed by how some reply to my articles based only on the title, not having read the article itself (where the question or complaint is already addressed). Does anyone pay attention to anything anymore? Anything at all?

To me, these small examples illustrate just how rushed people feel and, as a result, how little credit they give themselves for taking the time to figure something out. Human beings survive and flourish via the use of reason, of rational thought. It’ s necessary to be concise and efficient in your thinking, as much as possible. But when encountering something new or different, you have to give your mind a chance to reason and think it out. Rushing to expect an answer before giving yourself a chance to answer it will lead to impatience and unnecessary involvement with, or dependence on, others.

I’m not satisfied with the conventional wisdom that “ADD” is an illness and that it’s the consequence of (1) biology and (2) capitalistic technology (capitalism gets the blame for EVERYTHING). There’ s more to it than that, and it’s deeper than that.

It’s time to look inward and figure out what needs fixing, as individuals.


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