Are you suffering from focus-not-us? Hocus-pocus happens when words are used in a meaningless way, usually as part of a trick. “Focus-not-us” is my own phrase for a phenomenon I have observed in the reading and thinking habits of many students, associates and clients (and myself!). A recent article by Michael S. Rosenwald in The Washington Post has given me pause. I think we have a big problem — thinking!

Let’s nail the problem upfront with a confessional. I have a shelf full of books of which I have read with enthusiasm the first (and sometimes the second) chapter. Then I stopped and never went back. This was not because the books were not well-written or the authors’ ideas unworthy. In my mind, up till now, I simply thought that there just wasn’t enough time to read these books all the way through. Then, too, I’m always finding more books to read, which I add the bookshelf, read a bit and then move on. I’ve spoken with many others who confess to the same behaviour.

Abstract chess boardRosenwald’s news article caused me to ponder whether this behaviour is much more widespread.

In the article, “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say” [link], Rosenwald tells of a generation of otherwise intelligent people who, because of technology, have now lost their ability to read deeply and think hard. After speaking to several researchers, Rosenwald notes, “Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.”

Put simply, it’s one thing for me or you to read a chapter of a book quickly and then move on because we want to. It’s another thing if we have become conditioned to reading so many short-stroke words and thoughts online that we can’t read and comprehend complex and extended writing. Rosenwald really nails the problem with this paragraph:

With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is nonlinear reading, and it has been documented in academic studies. Some researchers believe that for many people, this style of reading is beginning to invade when dealing with other mediums as well.

He then quotes Andrew Dillon, a US professor and expert on reading: “We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking [are] just ingrained in you.”

Is this new or could this be the age-old debate, recast, about the tradeoff between being “an inch deep and a mile wide” (usually said with a pejorative tone) versus being the subject-matter expert who may know his subject a mile deep but can’t see anything beyond that narrow scope (also usually said with a pejorative tone)?

One answer to this might be the thinking of Howard Gardner, who has talked and written extensively about the “five minds” that all of us will need to survive the next century. An extensive summary of his thinking can be found on the tomorrowtoday blog [link]. It could be that we need to consciously exercise and grow our multiple minds.

My sense is that we’re facing a new problem here. And it’s a problem that I have tried to address via our nextsensing process. This flood of short-cycle thinking via Internet bits and bytes is really focus-not-us. It’s taking in such a volume of information that a pattern never takes hold and, thus, very little sense can be made of it all. I’ve called this disruptive ambiguity; and when I challenge people to use our Opportunity Canvas to get their random thoughts down to one page, it’s amazing how refreshed and stimulated they feel.

Rosenwald talks about a budding “slow reading” movement that advocates reading slowly, on purpose, much as the “slow food” movement advocates tasting every bite. One can’t criticise any programme that addresses focus-not-us behaviour. Go for it.

And, to be sure, there are probably many ways to address this problem, nextsensing among them. What’s clear to me is that technology is really not the problem; we are. And there are lots of things that we, individually and organisationally, can do to counter a world that can be chaotic but perhaps seems so more often simply because we no longer think deeply about what’s happening.

Maybe a reading group inside your department, with time given to discuss what’s being read, is an answer. Maybe bringing in a challenging speaker over an extended lunch hour to discuss one idea, in depth, is an answer. Maybe a special day once-a-month to “bring an idea to work” would allow a different work associate each month to think deeply about how to improve a work process and present it — perhaps that’s an answer.

I remain profoundly optimistic of what human beings are capable of. Isn’t it time for our worplaces to be a lot more supportive in helping us think our way — forward?