Modern life is designed to distract us. We've all had those days when we've been trying to complete one simple task whilst being bombarded by a tempting stream of emails, notifications, and popups. It's no wonder that we so often describe ourselves as 'busy' (more on that here). There are however, several studies which are showing that these technological distractions, which help us feel needed, important and wanted are, in fact, slowing us down.
Multitasking makes us less-efficient
We think we're great at multitasking - and at some level we are. Most of us are able to walk and talk at the same time - some skilled performers can even ride a bike whilst juggling plates. But it's important to distinguish between deliberate and automatic tasks.
Automatic tasks, that require little-to-no conscious thought, such as driving, walking and eating allow our brains to manage multiple things in parallel with something else.
Deliberate tasks, on the other hand, require our brains to allocate high levels of cognitive load - things that require us to plan, reason, or exert some form of self-control. This deliberate system in our brain is limited in capacity and is designed to cope with just one thing at a time. Miller's Law states that the maximum number of things that this system can juggle is somewhere between 5-7, a finding proved multiple times over in psychological research into working memory.
In a set of experiments conducted by Rubinstein, Evans & Meyer, young adults were asked to switch between different tasks (such as solving mathematical problems or classifying geometric objects). For all tasks, participants lost time when they had to switch tasks, and as the tasks become more complex, they lost even more time.
Far from allowing us to get more done, multi-tasking actually makes our days longer!
Distractions hamper our intelligence and creativity
Recent studies have shown that quality of decision making and analytical reasoning are drastically affected when engaging in multi-tasking behaviours. Additionally, Teresa Amabile's work on creativity in the workplace has demonstrated that we are most creative when we have blocks of undistracted time. When people have more-fragmented days, creative thinking decreases significantly.
The biggest instigator of multitasking mayhem? Our inboxes. Research from Glenn Wilson has shown that even the opportunity to multitask, such as knowledge of an unread email in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10-15 points. For most adults, this brings our cognitive ability in-line with that of an average 8-year old.
Prof Wilson calls this phenomenon "infomania". Text messages enhance this effect, demanding more immediacy than email, influencing us to be checking our phones even more-adamantly as a result.
Constant interruptions make us more anxious and compulsive
It's important to note that all our mobile devices are designed in such a way to appeal to our senses and neurological triggers. The dopamine hits that arrive when your phone vibrates on your desk instantly trigger our brain's reward centre, and can quickly form the types of habits which some neuroscientists have likened to addictions/compulsions. Some studies have even shown Facebook/Twitter to be as addictive as cigarettes or sugar.
In Daniel Levitin's book 'The Organised Mind', he describes how multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause 'tunnel-vision'.
Workflow has an impact on our cognitive load
If you look at examples from the world's cognitive heavy-lifters - writers, coders, designers - they all talk about the concept of workflow. This involves starting each task with a question - "what do I want to get done, and what will be the right tools, at the right time, to support me in that task?" This mindset eliminates unnecessary distractions, allowing complete focus on the task at hand.
How can we use tech more wisely to make the most of our time, whilst promoting balanced interactions with those gadgets that are designed to help? The concept of 'Digital mindfulness' has emerged in recent years - deploying skills, techniques and habits to help navigate our virtual worlds with grace. Here are six ideas for getting started - please add your own in the comments below!
6 ways to practice digital mindfulness
- Put apps with visual notification alerts on the last 'page' of your phone. Out of sight, out of mind. As this requires a conscious step to get there - temptation is placed that much further away.
- Create 'digital do not disturb' spaces throughout the day to block incoming notifications from arriving.
- Establish a checking schedule for email/texts when working.
- Create rewards for 'offline time'. These rewards will, in time, create habits.
- Repeatedly ask yourself - who is the master and servant in the relationship between you and your devices?
- Make time to look at your workflow. How are the tools you use affecting you and is this the way you want to behave?
As a final thought - those that know me will know just how difficult this blog was to write, as a self-professed gadget-aholic! Despite everything I've written about here, I firmly believe that technology is a fantastic enabler, offering a gateway to knowledge, creativity and (if used in the best way) enhanced productivity. The challenge comes when we fail to notice that those very devices that have enabled us have begun to engender negative habits.
Mindfulness practice (digital or otherwise) is all about noticing as the first step, then reclaiming control, allowing us to redistribute our focus to where it's needed most.