Our brains are designed to handle just one cognitive task at a time, but today’s hyper-connected culture combined with our assortment of tech devices creates the growing temptation to try and do several things at once. We might be working on an important presentation, but at the same time we will check our emails, hop onto Instagram, reply to a text message and also have our favourite Netflix series playing in the background. It’s this constant task-switching that neurologists say is having a detrimental effect on our productivity, as well as our wellbeing.
Adam Gazzaley, neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who’s recently published a book entitled: The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, says it’s a myth that we have the ability to multitask. Instead, he says, we switch rapidly between tasks, and “with each switch between the networks, there’s a little bit of loss, of the quality of information that we’re holding”. According to Gazzaley, human brains aren’t built to handle constant multitasking on connected devices, and so when we’re ‘task switching’ our brain can only do this by activating a completely different set of circuits, which significantly slows us down, meaning that we take much longer to achieve our goals.
Within his book, Gazzaley explains that our brains are wired to forage for information in the same way that animals forage for food, and social media and our connected devices plug directly into this foraging circuit. In fact, this survivalist thirst for information triggers our brain’s reward-dopamine system, but because of the vast volumes of information that we have access to online via all sort of devices, this ultimately creates overload and frustration. The desire for information looms over us constantly, causing significant damage to our attention as well as hampering our ability to stick to goals.
Many of us are already aware that multitasking (or task switching) across multiple devices is no good for us. We’re probably already know how distracted our minds have become, but when there’s the expectation for us to be reachable 24/7, it can sometimes seem like we’ve reached the point of no return. However, according to Gazzaley, there are several steps we can take to take better control of these distractions, and become more focused in our work…
1. Be aware
It’s important to recognise for yourself that when you’re rapidly switching between tasks and devices, your output is diminished. If you have a creative piece of work to complete, but you’re switching between email and Facebook at the same time, it’s crucial to be aware of the impact this is having upon the creative process, and your ability to reach your goal. Try switching off your email for an entire morning, for example, to notice the difference.
2. Set boundaries
Set periods of time aside when you give the task in hand your single, undivided attention. During this time, set your phone to “airplane” mode, to help block out device-related distractions.
However, you can also block out time for multitasking to your heart’s content, at points in the week when you have mundane tasks to complete that require minimal attention. This can help to satisfy your ‘dopamine loop’, granting your brain the information that it craves.
3. Take small breaks
Breaks can recharge your brain and make it less vulnerable to distractions, as well as benefiting health and stress levels. Take a walk outside, go to the gym, meet a friend for lunch or find a quiet corner to read a book. You will go back to work feeling energised and more focused on your goals.
Gazzaley explains that “it’s kind of like interval training in fitness. A break doesn’t necessarily mean email, either, because that’s a whole chain of activity that could take you away from your task. Instead, consider light physical activity, exposure to nature, and different pathways to restoration like meditation and mindfulness exercises. That’s how I manage my distracted mind.”
4. Set expectations
Often your work environment, or business culture, are as much to blame as the technology around you. Too often, there’s the expectation that companies will have 24/7 access to you, providing you with mobile phones, laptops and even tablets to make it easy for you to pick up emails on the weekend or dial into a conference call outside of your local office hours.
If it’s becoming impossible to stay focused in the workplace, set expectations for when you’re available to chat, and when you’d like to not be distracted. You could put a sign on your desk or office door, letting colleagues know that you’re ‘offline’ between 10am and 12 noon, for example, and setup your email ‘out of office’ for the same period so that no one will expect an urgent reply from you. Gazzaley also suggests wearing noise reduction headphones when you’re in ‘head down’ mode, as a visual cue that you’re not to be disturbed.
To find out more about managing your social media distractions, read about my experience of giving up Facebook for a month!