Digital distractions can make you feel productive and responsive, when in fact you’re just engaging in mindless, insignificant tasks. While digital technology broadens your access to information, makes communication easier, and provides other advantages, it often pulls you away from your true priorities.
For the most part, productivity means getting the most important things done, efficiently and effectively, while feeling satisfied with your progress and cultivating personal freedom for yourself. With this in mind, here’s how digital distractions drain your productivity:
Weaken your focus muscle
Paying attention to the task at hand is required to start, tackle and complete it. The ubiquitous presence of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and 24/7 online access erodes your ability to fully attend to one thing, concentrate, and work through problems, especially when they’re complex and require deep thought.
In January 2017, the Pew Research Center released fact sheets showing about 77% of Americans own a smartphone; nearly 73% state they have broadband service at home; 69% of U.S. adults use social media; nearly eight-in-ten U.S. adults own a desktop or laptop computer; and about half own tablet computers.
With digital technology at your fingertips, quick answers and instant gratification are expected. Over time, without consistent training and regular exercise, your focus muscle weakens immensely. And when faced with a difficult problem or averse task that needs to get done, you’ll be more tempted to look to your digital devices for a quick fix.
The brain’s prefrontal cortex craves novelty. The dopamine high you get from checking emails, text messages, social media and other digital information creates a feedback loop that encourages you to lose focus and seek external stimulation. The effects are sub-par results, more mistakes, and a prioritization of low-value busy work over high-value intentional work.
Encourage the counterproductive practice of multitasking (switch tasking)
Doing more than one thing at a time – commonly known as multitasking – is often viewed as a strength and skill. Companies misguidedly expect their employees to prioritize multiple projects and manage two or four or six tasks at once.
Although technology allows different processes to occur simultaneously, the human brain processes only one thing at a time, sequentially. As a result, juggling two or more tasks at one time — especially when they each demand high focus — is counterproductive.
In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen point out the brain has a limited capacity to pay attention, which makes it impossible to focus on two or more completely unrelated tasks at the same time.
You can do multiple, related tasks toward one outcome, such as when you drive a car, make breakfast, or attend to other simple routines. You can also background task very well, such as watch a movie while you exercise on the treadmill or listen to classical music while you cook. But when it comes to high-attention tasks — such as replying to emails while participating in a conference call, or texting while listening to an audio book — the best you can do is switch between tasks at rapid speeds.
In a University of California – Irvine study, researchers found it takes, on average, up to 20 minutes to refocus on an activity after being interrupted by email or another minor distraction. Each time you divert your attention from one task to another, you add to the time it would otherwise take you to complete it.
As your brain takes in new information on the second task, your attention becomes scattered and you lose your primary focus on the first task. You then have to catch up on the information you missed or the thought process you abandoned to fully get back to the first task. Plus, attention residue from a prior unfinished task affects your performance on the new task.
Even if you consider yourself a super multitasker, you are still more productive when you attend to one thing, take a break, and then move to the next.
Reduce your brain power
Strong cognitive abilities allow you to be truly productive in creative projects or high-value assignments. In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, molecular biologist John Medina explains how digital distractions bombard the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for exercising willpower, goal-setting, decision-making, planning, making moral judgments, and carrying out other executive functions. He breaks down the process into four steps:
Step 1- shift alert. The prefrontal cortex acts a switchboard in alerting the brain to shift attention. Blood rushes to this region of the brain when you’re about to start working on task #1, such as writing a research paper.
Step 2 – rule activation for task #1. This includes a two-part message. The first part is a search query to locate the neurons needed to carry out the task. The second part encodes a command to rouse the neurons, once found.
Step 3 – disengagement from task #1. While you’re working on task #1, there’s an interruption related to task #2, such as a text message from a friend. Because the rules for writing the research paper and replying to the text message are different, your brain has to disengage from task #1 before you can attend to task #2. Blood then rushes to the prefrontal cortex, alerting the brain to shift attention to the second task.
Step 4 – rule activation for task #2. The two-part message for rule activation to attend to task #2 is triggered. After the switch is completed, you may then address the second task.
Because these four steps have to occur in sequence each time you switch from one task to the next, your productivity dips when you give in to digital distractions.
Researchers found that persons who engage in heavier media-multitasking (i.e. toggle between many different websites, apps, programs or other digital stimuli) generally perform worse on cognitive control tasks and exhibit more socio-emotional difficulties. They tend to have less grey matter in certain parts of the brain, which serves to process information and is linked with intelligence, as well as thought and emotional control.
A neuroscientist at Stanford, Russel Poldrack, found that learning new information while being distracted causes the information to go the striatum (a region of the brain for storing new procedures and skills), but not to the hippocampus (a region of the brain for storing new facts and ideas, which makes information easier to recall or retrieve). In short, digital distractions negatively affect your memory.
Impair mental wellbeing
The constant stream of emails, instant messages, text messages, social media notifications, and online news produces information overload and mental fatigue. The fear of missing out (FOMO) keeps you hunched over your smartphone instead of attuned to the present.
Heavy media-multitasking, like switching from one app to the next, produces the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. One study found that smartphone overuse is linked to depression, anxiety and sleep problems.
In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle discusses how technology affects your capacity for solitude and development of empathy, which are critical for forming and sustaining human relationships. But in this digital age, you’re more likely to use the train ride or bus commute to consume more information on your electronic device, rather than think or reflect quietly. Instead of enjoying a face-to-face conversation on your break, you clear out your email inbox and scroll through news feeds.
Expanding connections through social media is not the same as building deep relationships and honing real friendships, which help to reduce stress and anxiety. When your mental wellbeing is compromised, it’s harder to commit to and work on challenging projects.
* * *
Avoiding and minimizing online distractions are necessary to get the right things done, with better results and in the least amount of time. To gain control over your digital device usage and online media consumption, read 5 quick tips on dealing with digital distractions.
# # #
Photo by: Benedicto de Jesus