Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 10, 2010

May I have my attention, please?

I wanted last Monday to be somewhat unplanned and relaxed. After all, isn't that what an extra day in a weekend is for - especially when it is Labor Day? It should be a time to unwind before the lazy days of summer turn into the sometimes frantic days of fall.

I went to the kitchen about 9 a.m. to fix French toast for husband Art, youngest daughter Katie, Nadja - our former German exchange student who is here doing a nursing internship - and me. But Nadja said she had already eaten and daughter Katherine had just put milk into a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. Both said they thought time was getting too short for anything more. Katie had planned to clean Mom's house and Nadja wanted to do some last-minute shopping on her last "free" day before she heads back to Germany.

Disappointed, I put the skillet away.

But it wasn't just the kids who seemed to be looking at the tasks ahead rather than enjoying the present moment.

Art asked me how I saw the day "playing out." He was planning to order parts for electronic units he needs to deliver soon. I told him I wanted to work on my column, pay some bills, download my most recent photos and shop for furniture.

I quickly realized it was unrealistic to think I'd get it all done in a day.

And that was okay. I had just been through one of my busiest times ever at work. I had spent the last year organizing the department's centennial, which culminated in three days of activities last week. Seemingly-endless to-do lists had swirled through my brain the past few months - do research on former department heads at University Archives; talk to KSU Foundation people about fund-raising opportunities; e-mail alumni to request their participation in panel discussions; talk to caterers; work on fliers, posters, bulletin boards and a website; reserve a tent at the football tailgate party; ask the K-State Singers to perform at the big bash; buy balloons; arrange for students to videotape the festivities; complete a historical DVD; set up a gallery of memorabilia ...

At times, I thought my brain was going to explode if I had to absorb one more piece of information. When oldest daughter Mariya noticed recently that I had trouble sitting still, she jokingly asked her Dad if maybe I wasn't experiencing adult attention deficit disorder.

I am distractible, as Art likes to point out. But I don't think I'm much worse than many others. All of us - young and old - are expected to do more different things in a day than our parents and in the process are exposed to more information than they were, some of it useful, some of it simply causing us to lose focus.

Many of us find ourselves interrupting conversations to respond to text messages or stopping work on whatever project is at hand to check our latest e-mail messages - most of which don't require our attention right then anyway. Sure, some of those distractions are fun, such as watching a YouTube link sent by a friend or surfing the Internet for some obscure piece of trivia. And then we are likely to be distracted yet again by some unrelated moving text or video sharing the screen.

So when I saw the article - "May I have my attention, please?" - in the July/August issue of the AARP magazine, first I laughed. Then it struck me how overloaded we often are.

The article cautioned that while all are vulnerable, those of us over 50 are especially so because normal brain changes - including small blockages to the brain's blood supply and a drop in nerve-signaling chemicals - can make it harder to tune out distractions.

Maggie Jackson, author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age," says we're "facing the limit of human ability to cope with stimuli in our environment." Researchers at the University of California-San Diego found that, on average, Americans hear, see or read 34 gigabytes (the equivalent of about 100,000 words) a day - from television, the Internet, books, radio, newspapers and other sources.

I could see how things had changed watching the presentations at the centennial banquet Friday evening. The fellow recollecting the decades of the 1940s presented a carefully-paced speech of what he recalled of the decade. The 1970s presenter had a PowerPoint presentation filled with stills of familiar images. The presentation for the next 10 years consisted of chunks of video.

So what to do? How do we tone down this barrage of information? The article said we can take several steps to "tame our information appetite." Among its suggestions are: focus on the right things, limit open-ended Web and channel surfing, read an absorbing book, unplug completely or take a walk.

In a way, we did just that. Instead of attempting all the things on my to-do list, we went shopping for some new furniture. Not one of us sent a text or called anyone on a cell phone. And we all seemed to enjoy ourselves quite nicely, paying full attention to each other and to the task at hand.

Nadja, left, and Katie seemed to enjoy our relaxing day at the furniture store quite a bit.

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