One Sunday afternoon early this year, I was editing my new book, “Meaningful Conversations“, and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply could not marshal the necessary focus.
Instead of reading and absorbing the written words, I was distracted by the alerts of my device on apps, email and twitter.
“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention,” Nicholas Carr explains in his book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” “We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”
Distractions turn on different part of our brains and do so more quickly than the daily grind of paying attention, neuroscientists have discovered.
Separate regions are responsible for the different ways our brain focuses on the world around us, according to the study by MIT researchers, and our brain waves even pulsate at different frequencies depending on the type of outside stimulus.
“Neural activity goes up and down in a regular periodic way, with everything vibrating together,” said study co-leader and neuroscientist Earl K. Miller. “It is faster for automatic stimulus and slower for things we choose to pay attention to.”
Addiction is the relentless pull to a substance or an activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life. By that definition, nearly everyone I know is addicted in some measure to the Internet. It has arguably replaced work itself as our most socially sanctioned addiction.
According to one recent survey, the average white-collar worker spends about six hours a day on email. That doesn’t count time online spent shopping, searching or keeping up with social media.
The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification creates something called a “compulsion loop.” Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect.
Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.
Are all the modern devices and digital conveniences we have at our disposal — from the web and social media to smartphones and tablets — making us more distracted and less able to concentrate? And is this harming our ability to think and be creative, and therefore by extension harming society as a whole? It’s a big question, the question is can we face the reality of the answer or are we afraid of missing something?
Is multi-tasking just a myth?
Joe Kraus of Google Ventures says he has an “unhealthy relationship” with his phone and is constantly pulling it out to check things, and that if he lets it, that behaviour “fills up those gaps in my day — some gaps of boredom, some of solitude.” The effect of all of this, he argues, is that we are increasingly distracted, and less able to pay attention to anything for a reasonable length of time, and this distraction is a “worsening condition.” We may think that we are getting things accomplished or multi-tasking, he says, but brain studies show that multi-tasking is a myth, and in reality we are just trying to do too many things at once and overloading our brain’s ability to concentrate.
The Google Ventures partner and former co-founder of Excite.com also quotes sociologist Dr. Sherry Turkle, to the effect that: “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We expect more from technology and less from each other.” This explains the constant desire for virtual contact, Kraus says — and that contact gets in the way of real relationships.
To live life with less distraction, consider implementing one or more of these 10 unconventional habits:
1. Turn off smart phone notifications.
2. Read/Answer email only twice each day.
3. Complete 1-2 minute projects immediately.
4. Remove physical clutter.
5. Clear visible, distracting digital clutter.
6. Accept and accentuate your personal rhythms.
7. Establish a healthy morning routine.
8. Cancel cable / unplug television.
9. Keep a to-do list.
10. Care less what other people think.
There is little doubt our world is filled with constant distraction which is effecting real relationships. And there is little doubt that those who achieve the greatest significance in life learn to manage it effectively.
As Bryan Adams once said:
“Social media is a giant distraction to the ultimate aim, which is honing your craft as a songwriter. There are people who are exceptional at it, however, and if you can do both things, then that’s fantastic, but if you are a writer, the time is better spent on a clever lyric than a clever tweet.”