Whether it's the ping of an email, a Skype call from a colleague, or another Facebook update on our smartphones, the modern world presents a multitude of digital distractions. Modern communication platforms can be a boon, but they also limit our ability to focus. People may boast of how well they can multitask, yet the truth is the brain isn't wired for multitasking. From a neurological standpoint, we are much better at focusing on one thing than we are at juggling six or seven. When we engage in many different tasks, what we are really doing is task-switching. As many discover, this is a recipe for exhaustion, irritability and a whole host of other problems.
There is a term for this, first coined by Dr. Lucia Kelleher in the early 2000s, and that is Busy Brain Syndrome. It is based on the idea that the brain has limited bandwidth with which to assimilate and process tasks and when the brain becomes overloaded with too many inputs, it compromises the ability to effectively respond. What Dr. Kelleher identifies as sensory bombardment, another study identifies as information and communication overload. In the context of the workplace, it impacts productivity. In our personal lives, it can wreak havoc with memory, mood, and decision-making.
Daily distractions have increased greatly over the course of a generation, yet our brains have not evolved to deal with these changes. Is it any wonder that many of us suffer from an unquiet mind? When we are subjected to sensory overload it is the unconscious mind that drives our responses, often emotively, almost always with sub-optimal outcomes. The key to addressing this is to be more consciously aware of our actions, to control our emotions, and to recognize and sidestep the dopamine hit we receive every time an email, social media or chat app pings for our attention.
What are some practical steps we can take to achieve this?
Although technology is not the only offender, it is by far the prime culprit when it comes to distracting us. Email, Yammer, Skype, Whatsapp, Instagram - strip it all back to what is necessary. Once you have done that, deal with it on a schedule that you control. Do your social media rounds first thing, if you must, then leave it aside. Check your work emails at the start of the workday. Barring an emergency, action them at set intervals rather than responding piecemeal. This allows time for work that requires real focus. Don't react to every chime or flashing icon. The truth is, especially in larger organizations, much of what we receive at work is non-essential or can at least be deferred.
Frequent task switching causes stress. It can also result in paralysis and procrastination. In a study conducted by Professor Gloria Mark, the University of California, fragmented approaches to work resulted in much higher levels of stress, frustration, and time pressure, with knowledge workers switching tasks an average of every three minutes. The best way to combat this is to structure your workload. Make a to-do list and allocate uninterrupted blocks of time to complete each task. Doing this allows the mind to get "into the zone" and work more efficiently. The sense of completion that we experience likewise boosts mood and morale.
Anyone can suffer from insomnia, but for those whose minds are chronically restless, quieting the background chatter of our thoughts can be especially challenging. Looping through the day's events, anticipating tomorrow's problems, all exacerbate the switched-on state. When our minds are unsettled it is often best to perform a relaxing activity before sleep. That could include some long-form reading, meditation, or even exercise. These allow the mind to reset and encourages persistent, racing thought patterns to abate. When you do go to bed, put the smartphone in the drawer. Screen use is a recipe for sleeplessness. The key is to avoid the constantly connected mentality.
While we live in an information-rich environment that in many ways improves our lives, we must also recognize the pitfalls. The one thing we can be sure of is that the demands of the modern world will not relent. This is why it is important to develop the habits of mind and behavior that leave us in control.