This Is Your Brain on Technology: The Distraction Epidemic


by Deborah Monroe


Picture it: You’re sitting at your desk, trying to focus on a project with an impending deadline. The phone rings. You try to ignore it, but you can’t help yourself!

Three minutes after you hang up, the familiar ding of an email arriving in your inbox calls to you in a Pavlovian way. Maybe it’s urgent...you decide to take a look, just a quick one. But, once you’re in your inbox, you see something that came in yesterday and you totally forgot about.

By the time you finish catching up on your emails, it’s time for lunch. You head out to grab a quick bite, cell phone at your hip. You feel a familiar vibration as you walk down the hall, yet you never break stride. With the skill and precision of a gunslinger at high noon, your hand moves smoothly towards your hip. You pull the phone out of its holster and raise it to your face. A torrent of words burst forth as Peter unloads his frustrations with his latest project. You realize you’re probably not getting lunch anytime soon.

That scenario probably rings true for many of us. So what would you say if I told you that you’re overstimulated, that technology is having an impact on your efficiency and productivity, at work and at home? What if I went a step further and said that technology is decreasing your team’s efficiency and effectiveness—would you agree?

We all wish we had more time to get things done. The thing is, it’s not how much time we have, but how we use that time that’s important. Technology is taking up more and more of our time, distracting us and keeping us from being productive, efficient, and effective.

An Expensive Epidemic

Office distractions eat up an average of two hours a day per person, and that’s in addition to the way we distract ourselves. Human beings switch activities every three minutes, meaning we change focus up to twenty times each hour. If we apply ourselves, we can focus on a task for an average of eleven minutes before getting distracted; it then takes twenty-five minutes to return to the task, if we do at all. Overall, distraction and wasted effort cost organizations around $650B each year.

It would seem we have an expensive epidemic on our hands. The question then is, what are we going to do about it?

We can continue the way we are, struggling to focus, becoming overwhelmed, stressed out, and miserable, which has a negative effect on our relationships, health, reputation, and sense of fulfillment. (Technology certainly isn’t helping.) Or we can accept certain truths about the way we work and make a cultural shift.

There’s No Such Thing as Multitasking

Truth: There’s no such thing as multitasking, and our attempts to achieve it are causing us to fail.

First, multitasking is a computer term, not a human term, and it wasn’t even an accurate description in 1966, when the term first emerged. Before multiprocessors, computers couldn’t multitask, and even in a multiprocessor, each processor can handle only one task. In reality, multiprocessors are serial processors, and in that way, they’re a lot like our brains.

The neocortex is the part of the brain we use to focus and think, and it’s a serial processor. It can’t do two things at once; what it can do is switch tasks. Our brains are capable of moving rapidly from one task to another, and this phenomenon is known as continuous partial attention, a term coined by Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft. Continuous partial attention is “what happens when people’s focus is split, continuously. The effect is constant and intense mental exhaustion. To pay continuous partial attention is to keep a top-level item in focus and constantly scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.”

Many of you are thinking, Okay, so how is it that I can walk and chew gum at the same time? Or read while I run on the treadmill? That’s multitasking, isn’t it? And you’d be right. That is multitasking, of a sort. You can do two things at once, but the things that you do well at the same time are stored in different parts of your brain. Allow me to explain your brain (parts of it, anyway).

The basal ganglia control rote/memorized tasks and actions. This is the area of the brain that handles parallel processing, which allows you to do two easy or memorized tasks at the same time, like walking and chewing gum. The visual cortex (occipital lobe) processes input from your optic nerve, storing visual information that helps you remember and make sense of the word. The amygdala is part of the limbic system, and it’s your operating system. It’s responsible for your emotional memories, learning and reaction, and instinct (fight, flight, or freeze).

The prefrontal cortex is really where it’s at, though. This area of the brain is highly developed in humans, and it’s where serial processing takes place. It’s the brain’s software, and it’s responsible for working memory, strategizing, foresight, prioritizing, and decision making. When we need to focus and concentrate, we fire up the prefrontal cortex. But it’s an energy hog, and with limited capability, it burns out very quickly. Seeking distraction is the brain’s natural response.

Constant interruptions and distractions can have a negative effect on your attention, your productivity, your creativity, your ability to prioritize, and your output. How do we stop the insanity? By making a cultural shift.

Shifting Culture

The only realistic cure for the distraction epidemic is a cultural shift. We know that the most effective way to institute a change is to start at the top and let it roll downhill. That means that our leaders need to champion the understanding that “business as usual” is ineffective and dangerous to their organizations and the health and well-being of their employees.

However, it’s easy to brainstorm ways to limit distractions; putting those ideas into practice is another issue entirely, especially at the organizational level. So, if you can’t change the culture at the top, start by changing it in your life.

The key to increasing your own productivity is simple: commit to minimizing distractions by establishing boundaries. Here are a few examples. 

  1. Turn off the notification ping on email. Obviously, it’s okay to check your email throughout the day, but don’t react to every notification. Try to check your email three to four times a day, and make sure you let others know that’s what you’re doing so you can manage their expectations appropriately. 
  2. Whether you’re engaged in conversation, at a meeting, in a training class, or on vacation, turn your phone off or ignore it until your conversation, meeting, training class, or vacation is over. Make sure people know you’re otherwise engaged and will be responding after the event is over. Again, communicate! 
  3. Arrange to have a technology-free day once a week. Unless “they” will fire you, turn your devices off on Sundays and enjoy life: other people, outdoor activities, games, food, fun, etc. Take time to recharge your batteries. 
  4. Prevent people from disturbing you and breaking your focus. There are many creative ways to do this, but they all require you to tell the truth and be direct without being rude. 
    • If you’re a manager, a closed-door policy manages everyone’s expectations. The only time you can be interrupted is in the case of an emergency. Otherwise, schedule specific times where you meet with people, so they know when they can approach you. 
    • If you’re an individual contributor working on a project, have some type of identifying object at your cubicle that says, “Please don’t interrupt me while I’m focusing.” It doesn’t have to be explicit; it can be as simple as a small stop sign or caution tape.

Try one, two, or all of these ideas and watch yourself conquer distraction. You’ll become more focused, more human, and more productive once again.

Rule technology, or it will rule you—it’s your choice!

 

As president of Ignite Achievements Int’l, Deborah Monroe works with executive leadership and management to create balanced working environments. Emotional intelligence is one of Deborah’s areas of expertise, and she focuses on helping people change patterns of behavior in the workplace. Deborah is an HDI Faculty member and the author of Cutting Through to Success: Learning for the Leader Inside of You (2012).

Tag(s): technology

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