The Rotary Phone Effect


Inability to focus is a common complaint amongst parents and teachers, yet the world around us seems more and more to encourage rapid shifting of our attention. Diagnoses of children with attention deficit are steadily on the rise, and kids’ favored leisure time activities require shorter attention spans. Is our impatience with everyday interactions growing in concert with our reliance on technology for convenience and entertainment? At times I wonder if this is a chicken and egg situation – which came first, the inability to focus, or instantaneous access to almost anything?

How do modern-day conveniences and culture affect our ability to focus for sustained periods of time? This contemplation started when my son and I went to purchase a book and it wasn’t in stock. The store offered to order it for him, and for his inconvenience (of not getting what he wanted immediately), shipped it directly to our home for free. I am not sure when consumers became entitled to get what they want when they want it, but the store staff was apologetic at the thought that my thirteen-year-old would have to wait. That was Sunday.

On Monday my son waited at the mailbox for the book to arrive.

On Tuesday my son waited at the mailbox for the book to arrive.

This went on for a week-and-a-half. My quiet amusement grew as I watched him out the window diligently waiting for the postal delivery each day. I finally told him, “This is what it was like back in the day when we sent letters.” Delicious anticipation was part of the experience. I was glad he was feeling it.

We are conditioned in this day and age NOT to have to wait. Delay, patience, and fortitude, are important attributes that allow our brains to focus. But these ruminating skills – the feeling of anticipation -contemplation, deliberation, they are neither practiced nor encouraged in much of today’s experiences or interactions. Are we creating the inability to focus by making it unnecessary to focus?

Consider how we find workarounds for concentration, reflection and interaction – how we are conditioned to take the quickest path from A to B. Sending and receiving emails replaced writing letters.  We text instead of calling and if we receive a telephone call, we know who it is even before answering. Photographs are edited and shared immediately. Coffee is made at the push of a button. There’s even speed dating!

When is the last time you watched a show that was actually on television at that time? The advent of TV dinners and tray tables was all about planning around your favorite show. Now we can stream, upload, download, or DVR anytime, anywhere. We get what we want on demand. There is no focus or planning required. Video – games or shows – are lightning fast. Can you imagine kids playing Atari Pong today? We, and especially our children, are conditioned to think and receive almost instantaneously.

Remember the rotary phone? No one wants to wait that long to place a call, but I imagine our brains at their best operating like rotary phones. We focus on a thought – like the number we choose to dial – and before landing on a conclusion – we contemplate – click whirr, click whirr, click whirr – until we hit the right number or thought. I’ve always wondered whether gifted and 2e kids with slow processing speeds are akin to the rotary phone, just deep thinkers. The more data you bring in, the more time it takes to sift through and consider it. I call this “the rotary phone effect.” Pause and reflection prior to action.

I once attended a lecture entitled “If Your Child has Executive Functioning Challenges, You’re the Luckiest Person in the World.” The speaker’s point was that these kids have the ability to consider the wider world and contemplate deeper meanings. It seems we are teaching our kids and role modeling how to avoid having to focus. We encourage the quick thinker rather than the thoughtful academic. What we value in time savers and speed is affecting higher societal and educational values.

Some say the boredom epidemic at school is due to stimulating technology outside of school. How can math compete with Minecraft? How does classroom learning compete with Xbox or Nintendo? Our kids’ brains are conditioned to expect information and stimulation rapidly.

Miriam Webster defines inattention as a “failure to carefully think about, listen to, or watch someone or something.” This requires time – a moment or moments when we allow our brain to percolate, and ponder. Is this type of focus antithetical to efficiency? Do we have to choose between thinking and accomplishing? I don’t think so, and I don’t think you can successfully separate the two, but I do believe that this craving for a quick fix, this desire for speed, affects ability to sustain efforts and attention. In order to encourage and succeed at focus and contemplation we must have an appreciation, or at least the patience, for delayed gratification.

Since the best way to teach is by example, and the best way to learn is to practice, perhaps carving out “thinking time” is something we should do with our kids. Model the importance of careful consideration in school and at home. Consider saying this to your child or student; “Wait, I need to take some time before I make this decision,” or “I will answer your question, but I want to think about it first.”

We need to adjust expectations and priorities, and reward thoughtful research and contemplation. In school, rather than essay assignments having three due dates; first draft, second draft, final product, establish and encourage ongoing essay iterations. Incorporate deliberate thinking like thoughtful reactions, comments and peer interaction, into the writing process.

At home, consider instituting a 12 or 24-hour weekly vacation from all things electronic. Disconnect to connect. Allow the brains in your home and classroom to “click whirr.” Unless or until we value the “rotary phone effect,” I’m afraid we are discouraging deliberate thought processes, missing out on critical discoveries, and encouraging self centered, inattentive tech junkies.

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Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-confidence in their students and clients.

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