Electronics on the Brain: Multitasking & Information Overload
One Second, I Just Need to See This Text…
A Sunday Pearls Before Swine comic reminds us what we’re up against.
“I will finish my resume,” says the Rat, who sits in front of a computer.
“Hey, I have an email,” says the Rat. “Could be important . . . .Wow, it has a YouTube link — gotta watch. Look, there are more shows I’ve never seen before. I’ll check this one in Wikipedia. Wait, that’s not the right show, but that girl looks interesting. I’ll Google Image her. Cool photos, I’ll post them on Facebook — Hey! A friend request. Who is this guy? I should Google him. He’s too weird, I’ll write about him on my blog. Who’s reading my blog? I’ll Google myself.
“No, no, no, it’s time to do my resume . . . .”
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“Ooh, an email!”
Help! I'm On Information Overload!
Sound familiar? We have created a culture where technology is eating us up and eating the attention of our brains. If you’re feeling overloaded by emails, text messages, websites, social media, computer programs, and other electronic stimulation, it’s not because you have a lacking or aging brain.
Your brain was designed to efficiently process one thing, one cognitive operation at a time. It was also designed to get breaks and to have separations, leaving work at work and home at home like we did a generation ago.
Now, our brains are expected to be everywhere, all the time. A recent survey of workplaces found that employees were distracted about every three minutes. A study at Microsoft discovered that employees took fifteen minutes or more to return to a challenging task when they strayed in order to answer emails or return instant messages.
Distractions: The Land of No Return
Can you ignore the sound alert from your email program signaling that you have a new message? Most can’t. The life of a high-tech zombie is one of continuous partial attention. When you’re online, you feel pulled by the lure of social networking — the people-information stream.
Have you ever felt that vortex of procrastination diffusing your focus on tasks? If so, you’re operating in persistent high alert, says Linda Stone, a former Microsoft and Apple executive who focuses on implications of computer use. You never get really settled in what you’re doing, because you follow the persistent distractions.
Modern technology is also causing symptoms similar to those of attention-deficit disorder (ADD). Dr. Edward Hallowell calls the condition attention-deficit trait (ADT).
“You’ve become so busy attending to so many inputs and outputs that you become increasingly distracted, irritable, impulsive, restless and, over the long term, underachieving,” says Hallowell, a leading expert on ADD and the author of Driven to Distraction.
Multitaskers have more fractured thinking and trouble shutting out irrelevant information, even when they are offline. Nicholas Carr, author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” says that constant multitasking creates shallower thinking, weakened concentration, reduced creativity, and heightened stress. Women have been multitasking forever — taking care of kids, house, and family, all while doing professional work. But electronic multitasking requires narrow focus and short attention, and our eyes are mesmerized by shifting lights and visual intensity.
How to Untether From Technology
Can you get more attentive, more efficient, and less addicted to technology? It’s definitely possible.
Take a Break from the Internet
We need help — some of us more than others. Now we have some computer programs to stop the onslaught, to help people to focus instead of fighting the gnats of distraction. Some software, like Ulysses, Writespace, Scrivner, WriteRoom, and Dark-Room, hides everything but a minimalist word processor. Other programs such as LeechBlock, Isolator, Turn Off the Lights, MenuEclipse, Think, and SelfControl eliminate distracting toolbars or turn off specific Internet programs, such as Facebook, email programs, and other mind-fluff, for a specified period of time.
Freedom software for both Mac and PC goes whole-hog. You set it to lock you out of the Internet from fifteen minutes to eight hours. To get back on, you can wait until the timer runs out, or you can reboot your computer — a hassle that you can avoid by staying on task. Writer/director Nora Ephron uses Freedom, and so do I.
Withdraw in two steps:
(1) Know why you’re withdrawing from your devices; perhaps to be more focused or because you’re simply not as alive as you could be.
(2) Create a habit, like disconnecting from technology every weekend. It’s hard at first, but easier when you connect with yourself and those around you.
In the New York Times “First Steps to Digital Detox,” Nicholas Carr says the only way to stop is to stop: turn off the BlackBerry and the iPhone, and check e-mail only two or three times a day. Cutting back may be challenging at first, as you reframe how you manage career communications and an initial sense of social isolation. “At the very least, you’ll probably feel calmer, sharper and more in control of your thoughts,” says Carr.
One Task at a Time
Turn off extraneous devices (do you have several of them on at once?). Just do one task and one gadget at a time.
Balance Your Tech Time
Make an effort to balance your tech time with regular off-line breaks. Every hour or so, go low-tech and turn off your gadgets. Write a letter, have a conversation, take a walk, stretch. These no-tech breaks will minimize stress, maintain focus, and improve your quality of life.
For most of us, technology is driving the bus, and we’ve lost the humanness of ourselves. Touch base with yourself regularly. Remember that you are not defined by your email, Facebook comments, text messages, or clever ability with Bejeweled. Instead of letting technology rule you, use it. Schedule break times, and leave messages on your screen that remind you that you’re an even more amazing invention than the computer. Notice and care for yourself.
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
Brain Fitness for Women: Keeping Your Head Clear & Your Mind Sharp at Any Age
by Sondra Kornblatt.
Reprinted with permission of Conari Press, and imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser LLC. ©2012 by Sondra Kornblatt. Brain Fitness for Women is available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher at 1-800-423-7087 or http://redwheelweiser.com.
About the Author
Sondra Kornblatt is a health and science writer and the author of A Better Brain at Any Age and co-author of 365 Energy Boosters. She developed Restful Insomnia (formerly Creative Insomnia) in the midst of a long bout of insomnia in 2000. Sondra drew on thirty years of visualization, meditation, therapy, yoga, spirituality, and other personal work to develop several novel insomnia techniques and innovative ways to use familiar ones to renew. She has been teaching it in the Pacific Northwest since. Learn more at www.restfulinsomnia.com.