You multitask, don’t you? A typical example of it is reading email and/or Twitter or RSS feeds while “listening” to a phone call or “participating” in a meeting.
We do it for at least a couple of reasons:
We think it actually makes us more productive
We are addicted to the “dopamine rush” we get from feeding our brains with information
A lot of studies are showing that our first premise is wrong: multitasking does not make us more productive, but less so. The landmark study in this regard was done by Stanford researchers, who note that
“People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found.”
Additionally, Professors Nass and Ophir, who led the study, noted
“They’re suckers for irrelevancy.”
“We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it.”
There are even those who clamor that the internet is hurting our brains, with Nicholas Carr even putting out a book on the subject: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
I tend to agree with acclaimed professor of psychology Steven Pinker, though:
Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder.
But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.
You can check in on Twitter 20 times a day, because your iPhone or BlackBerry or Android makes it so easy to do so, or you can do like Martha Stewart, who recently said she allows 5 minutes a day to Twitter, and no more, “because it’s too addictive.”
So it all boils down to self-control. We can exercise it (and develop it), or become “suckers for irrelevancy” and have our productivity hampered by trying to do more at once than our brains are wired for.
There is evidence that our brains only have a certain amount of attention to give per day, and that wasting that attention on trivia keeps us from adequately addressing the really important matters in our lives.
(If you want to learn a lot more about this, you can check out the YouTube of David Rock talking at Google about the brain. David has even more detail in his book Your Brain at Work.) That should motivate all of us to beef up our self-control and use it to help us more wisely use technology.