Your Brain on Technology
Before the invention of the clock, humans perceived time very differently than we do now. To them, time flowed like a stream of water; the transition from one moment to the next was seamless and imperceptible. Once people started tracking time, that all changed. When we invented the first time-keeping devices, we changed our conception of time itself. Instead of being an unbroken stream, time was now a series of discrete, individual units. As clocks become more and more accurate, these units got smaller and more precise. Suddenly, we started thinking in terms of hours, minutes, and eventually, seconds. We also started fixating on productivity — time spent, time wasted.
The Internet Encourages Multitasking
The internet promotes distraction and multitasking. We almost always have multiple devices at hand that can access it. Even using one computer, you can still watch a video, have 18 other tabs open, play Spotify in the background, and get notifications from Slack and iMessage simultaneously. Moreover, the internet rewards this distracted behavior. It’s not just our frequent use of this technology that gives it such a powerful ability to shape our neural pathways — it’s also the fact that using the internet offers constant, quick dopamine hits. Every time you check Twitter or Instagram, new mentions, comments, and photos are waiting for you. Every time you look at the sidebar on YouTube or on most blogs, there are exciting headlines that make your eyes light up. The result is that the internet encourages the return of our natural, “bottom-up” style of attentional control. There’s always something new happening, somewhere else to shift your focus. And, just as with the cab drivers, your brain has to give something up. The more you allow the internet to promote this distracted, frenzied style of consuming information, the less time you spend deeply concentrated on one task — and the less able you are to call up that deep concentration when you really need it.
“Everyone suffers some deficit in performance when they’re exposed to irrelevant information, even if they’re aware they should avoid it and are trying to do so,” says Adam Gazzaley, a UC San Francisco neuroscientist who studies attention. Distractions are a problem, he says, because your brain has to work constantly to fend them off. Every time you have to force your attention back to the task at hand, it drains a bit of the reserve you could be applying toward the real goal. This means that every time an email notification pops up on your screen, your brain involuntarily takes it in, then has to convince itself to get back to work. This may seem minor, but over time it adds up, exhausting your ability to focus. But there are all sorts of external tools you can use to shut distractions out for you instead. If possible, you can print out an article and step away from your computer, or read it while shutting off your internet connection. If you need to be online, you can use apps like Freedom and Focus to lock your computer out of specific websites for a set period of time. If you have articles you want to read later, use OneTab or TabManager to save them without keeping a distracting tab open. Turn off your phone and desktop notifications to prevent every new email from disrupting your workflow.
Stay Focused, Stay Productive
We will get distracted from time to time, and that’s OK. Being easy on ourselves. Staying focused while working on the internet and with different tools can be a challenge, but with a little restructuring—and a little persistence— we can become more productive and effective.