As we in the technology business know, technology is ubiquitous. It makes its way into our clothing, our offices, and our homes. You likely can’t get through a day without multiple text messages and phone calls. The world moves by at lightning speed, and we expect it to. We are all driving down the great American highway, no time to stop, it’s go, go, go as we shuffle through short YouTube videos or listen to half of a song before changing it. Just watch a teenager try to get through a whole conversation without checking his phone for texts.
What are the effects of technology’s overstimulation? Does it affect our cognitive abilities? A recent CNN article says yes.
Adam Gazzaley, professor of neurology at the University of California, explains that technology has grown so fast that it challenges “our cognitive control system at its very core. “
He explains that cognitive control is our ability to focus on accomplishing a task in the context of competing demands. Essentially, the more demands, the more difficult it is to focus.
When you have a cell phone buzzing, an email blinking in the lower corner of your screen, a new Facebook message, a tweet, and your boss burning in your ear, it’s going to be a little challenging to focus, and this level of demand is commonplace. According to Gazzaley, our brains are very sensitive to external interference by both irrelevant distractions and multitasking.
Gazzaley suggests we take a careful approach to our interactions with technology. If something requires high-quality attention, we need to reduce distractions and put ourselves in focus mode. Turn off your notifications, shut off that phone, and use the internet only for necessary resources.
On top of using our techno-gadgets less, a recent article in Time suggests meditation might help you focus. Meditation generally involves sitting and carefully following your breath, or focusing on a mantra. Many people today find it extremely difficult to just sit and breathe—no doubt because of our rapid day to day pace. With meditation, you learn to slow your mind, let the cars pass you on the highway, and ignore the techno-burdens. When you lack the ability to focus, it affects your ability to listen and understand others, and also affects your memory, especially for those with neurological or psychiatric conditions such as ADHD or Alzheimer’s.
Keeping on the subject of productivity, a recent conversation I had with a coworker made me wonder why we procrastinate. Presumably, the answer is different for everyone. My coworker explained to me that for her, if she’s experiencing writer’s block it simply means she’s procrastinating, though we didn’t delve into why she was procrastinating. For me, I feel I procrastinate when I’m tired of a project I’m currently working on and need a break from it. My roommate procrastinates to make my life difficult and force me to do his dishes while he snacks on my food.
A recently posted video on Lifehacker attempts to explain why we procrastinate. They suggest that it feels more rewarding to our brain to enjoy an online video or a silly Reddit thread than it is to work on a daunting report. The amount of time you have for a task, compared to the value of the reward determines how important the task seems. This is called temporal proximity. The report is important, but doesn’t seem as important when a lot of time is available, so you don’t immediately tackle it.
It seems to me that procrastination and the inability to focus are inexorably tied. I find that I procrastinate when I’m bored, but my boredom can likely be traced to an inability to continue focusing on the project, and that lack of focus is exacerbated by all the distractions I have around me. Since we interact with so much constant stimuli, it becomes tough to focus on any one thing for too long—a common complaint of my professors in college whose students couldn’t focus in class, or on their text book assignments at home. It also appears to be a growing problem for younger generations whose first book might be a touch pad.
Looking at the business world, we understand why it’s important to focus on important things and simply get them done, but multitasking is an imaginary time-saver. According to the Washington Post, the more tasks you add, the more difficult it is for your brain to focus. Your brain then becomes less efficient, and less creative.
A much better technique is to focus wholly on the task at hand, get it done with no distractions from other projects, or technology, and move on to the next one—even in writing this piece I stopped several times to check email, switch songs, and even type a few lines into another project. Most of us are guilty of occasional lapses in focus, but we can work towards being more focused, stopping procrastination, and getting things done.
Although technology might seem to be part of the problem, there are online tools to help you increase your level of focus and productivity. As with anything, we must find the right balance.