Devices. Our beloved Devices. The siren call of an arriving text or email captures our attention even when we know we should be concentrating on the task at hand. We sneak a peek at dangerous or inopportune times, whilst driving, for example, or reading to our children at bedtime.
Feeling vaguely guilty about this, we valiantly tell ourselves that we looked “just this once” because we are waiting for an important message. Really? Truly? Due to cognitive dissonance, our capacity for self-deception is almost as great as our love affair with distraction.
Our brains are highly adaptive. Present them with continual distractions and that’s what they will learn to deal with. But adaptation is not always in our long-term interest. Eat too many starchy foods while foregoing exercise and our bodies will “adapt” by getting fat and out of shape. Feed your brain on enough sugary distractions and what you get is a brain that is ever more easily distracted.
Intense concentration is a use-it-or-lose it skill. When we focus intently, it sends a signal to our brain to make the specific neurons we are using more efficient by increasing the myelin coating around those neurons. They become super-highways. When we try to do several things at once, particularly unrelated things like responding to an email while conducting a conversation while switching to read a Facebook post, our brains don’t know which neurons to isolate for the specialty treatment. So our thoughts continue along one-lane bumpy roads. Learning is impaired.
“Yeah, I kind of get that. But I can concentrate when I need to. When I have to buckle down for a deadline, I can concentrate with the best of them”.
Not so much. The brains of people who multitask all the time can’t filter out what is relevant and what is not. Their working memory goes to pot (literally, sometimes). Because they are chronically distracted, their brains are unable to distinguish which neurons need to fire, so they galvanize large parts of the brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. No wonder they’re tired.
I’m fairly introverted and have always been a bookworm. When I’m immersed in thought or buried in a book my husband claims the building could burn down around me before I would notice. He’s probably right. Having said that, I’d noticed an increasing mental itchiness while reading on my iPad. I would read for 15 minutes or so and then become a snick bored, so switch to see if I’d received an email, or found myself going down an internet rabbit hole. My brain felt restless, always scanning for something to amuse it.
I’m not alone. We’re wired to seek novelty; website and App designers know it. It’s so easy to download another App – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – all so innocuous on the surface. In and of themselves they do not reduce our ability to focus. But continually switching from one to another teaches our mind intolerance for absence of novelty – aka boredom.
Several prominent personalities have gone on dramatic sabbaticals from all things Internet for a couple of weeks or a month. Kind of like an alcohol-free January to reset the liver after the exigencies of the holiday season. Or some people have implemented a ‘media-free day” once a week. That’s all well and good for the set period, but is it really practical long term?
So what’s the solution?
Embrace the paradox. Negotiate a workable solution between the binary options of being constantly distracted and being completely disconnected. Use discipline to choose how and when to be engaged, and this requires us to make some decisions on how and when we are going to focus.
Block off one to three 90-minute periods of focus per day. Our ability to concentrate is part of the same overall self-control bucket that Roy Baumeister describes in Willpower. We have a finite daily dose. So don’t waste your time on the cheap stuff. According to Cal Newport, in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in A Distracted World we can fully focus for up to about four hours a day, with neophytes being closer to one hour and true attention champions closer to the upper limit. Use your daily limit, whatever it currently is. You can’t save it up and spend it all in a giant 10-hour burst. Our brains don’t work that way.
During your “focus period” shut down the distractions – digital and otherwise. Go somewhere quiet where you can really concentrate. Humans are extremely social creatures. When we are with others, we are vaguely aware of their presence and a subterranean portion our attention is captured by them. Learn to tolerate being alone. Shut off all virtual people, too, during your focus periods.
Organize the rest of your tasks and activities around these focus periods. Group like tasks together into bursts – answer email in groups, several times a day. For those of us over 40, return phone calls.
If at all possible, after a focus period, consolidate your thinking by taking a walk. Being out in nature, and moving your body, gives your unconscious mind a chance to form new connections and present novel solutions. According to Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT) of Dutch Psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis, decision-making utilizes the more linear thought processes of the conscious brain. Our unconscious mind involves regions of our brain with more “neuronal bandwidth”, so it can move more potential solutions around than our conscious centre.
Be discriminating in what Apps you download and which email lists you sign up for, inadvertently or not. Make “unsubscribe” your default, or set up email filters to push emails to a folder to read later. If you really want something, you can always find it. How much of your time and attention are you “selling” to gain the benefit of the tool at hand? Is the marginal utility of the program worth what it’s taking from you?
Be discriminating, period. Recognize that your focus is a finite resource. Spend it where you are going to get the best return. Decide on your priorities and stick to them.
Learn to say “no”. Calmly, kindly and firmly.
While it’s tempting to throw up our hands and let others take the lead in capturing our attention, it’s up to us to decide what we are going to let into our lives. Endless distractions are often a failure in filters. Build good filters and develop good habits around maintaining them.