Engaging The Distracted Consumer

It’s not a surprise to any of us that most people are much more distracted today then they were in the past. Remember the days when there were no mobile phone, no video games, no DVDs in the car…it seems so peaceful. On the flipside, it seems so unproductive. I can’t imagine not multi-tasking.

Ultimately, there are three questions that come to mind:

  1. Do we learn more this way?
  2. Does this affect our social relationships?
  3. Does this change our productivity keeping in mind quality?

I don’t know the answers to these (although I have opinions). But, I started thinking about this when I was reading an article in Time (Wired For Distraction). The author talks about “continuous partial attention” which is a key complication in the world of health engagement.

On the one hand, I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say how critical multi-tasking is. BUT, there are times (IMHO) that you have to buckle down and focus. I remember a few years ago when I had to essentially just focus on one big project for a month. It was hard, but the project was successful. At the end of the day, there is a difference between being used to distractions and dealing with multi-tasking.

Is this a prevalent issue? Yes. You don’t have to look any farther than those advertisements on TV with the father walking around the soccer field on his BlackBerry or phone. Or look at all the efforts to get people to stop texting while they drive.

“Constant distraction affects not only how well kids learn but also how their brains absorb new information.” (Time, 2/22/11, pg. 56)

I think the study mentioned in the article from UCLA in 2006 makes the point:

  • Multi-taskers and focused learners deploy different parts of their brain
  • Multi-taskers use their striatum which is focused on building procedural memory
  • Focused learners use the hippocampus which helps people apply knowledge

So, what do you want for your kids – them to be good at routine tasks or them to be good creative thinkers. Does that play into Michelle Obama’s decision not to let her kids use Facebook?

But, apply this to the healthcare challenges we face…

  • Are people using the devices during their physician visit further limiting what they retain?
  • When you send someone a direct mail piece, an e-mail, or a phone call about their healthcare, are they really hearing the information? Or are they listening to TV and reading e-mail? Or taking a phone call while watching a soccer game?

Given the health literacy issues we face, this lack of focus when we’re delivering critical information to an overwhelmed patient is a real cause for concern. Maybe there are simple answers:

  • Appeal to the basic research on learning which shows that people learn the most when you leverage multiple ways of delivering information – verbal and written; or
  • Simplify the message; or
  • Leverage plain language; or
  • Ask the person to pause to listen to the message; or
  • Increase your attempts to change behavior (without annoying the consumer).

We know the message matters, the channel matters, the person or entity delivering the message matters, and now I’m suggesting that the environment in which the information is received matters.

4 Responses to “Engaging The Distracted Consumer”

  1. I believe there are situations that call for a more focused thinking and there are others that call for skill in multi-tasking. As physicians, we may need to balance the two. But in my practice as a resident physician, I often find myself stuck in multi-tasking that I long for opportunities to get involved in more focused thinking.

  2. great post. i believe your points about focused thinking, and the degradation of thought that occurs with too much multitasking, are very important considerations. thanks!

  3. Read this story and you will see what I am thinking about multi-tasking remember your priority in life.



  1. Grand Rounds for March 1st, 2011 - March 1, 2011

    […] Healthy Decisions deliberates the relative merits of multi-tasking versus focused thinking, and advocates for the old-fashioned focused thinking which engages the hippocampus and allows us […]

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