The Attraction of Distraction
We are, as a species, seriously distracted. We watch TV while reading a book, eating, and responding to a text. We check email while chatting on the phone, checking the calendar, and searching for restaurant reviews. Sound familiar? Yeah, me too.
Why is it so hard to do one thing at a time? Have you tried to not glance at your phone for 30 minutes while you’re trying to work? It’s basically torture. Why is this such a difficult thing to do? Turns out, we love distraction. Like seriously love it.
Our brain is hard-wired to pay attention to novelty. Meaning: every time the phone dings, we cant help but zone in on it. No matter what environment humans are in, survival depends on being able to focus on what’s important. Generally, this means the thing that is moving (or dinging).
While this may have been an extremely useful feature for our Neolithic ancestors avoiding a sabre tooth tiger attack, it doesn’t really comport to our modern experience. We live in a world where we need to focus on one thing (i.e. work) but there are so many things moving around us.
This may not seem like a big deal. You probably think of yourself as a very efficient multitasker. But in reality, scattering your focus has some pretty negative consequences.
Short On Attention, Long on Distraction
Attention requires brainpower. As it turns out, your brain dedicates a significant amount of metabolic resources (such as glucose) and energy into focusing your attention on something. And metabolic resources are finite.
Studies show that each task you do tends to make you less effective at the next task, and this is especially true for high-energy tasks like self control or decision making.
For example, say your brain invests a certain amount of glucose into typing an email. Then your phone rings - boom, more glucose required. Then a co-worker walks into your office - bye bye more glucose. By the time you get back to where you were - typing that initial email - your ability to stay focused goes down even further as you have even less glucose available now.
Studies suggest that office workers change focus up to 20 times an hour. If you are anywhere near this, your productive thinking time is only a fraction of what's possible. Less energy equals less capacity to understand, decide, recall, memorize, and inhibit. The result could be mistakes on important tasks. Or distractions can cause you to forget good ideas and lose valuable insights. Having a great idea and not being able to remember it can be frustrating, like an itch you can't scratch, yet another distraction to manage.
It’s clear that distractions really take their toll and multi-tasking isn’t the best way to boost productivity.
Do you think multi-tasking = big brains? Think again. Research has demonstrated that brain structure can be altered upon prolonged exposure to novel environments and experience. Recent studies delve into this further and the findings are pretty shocking. The brains of heavy multitaskers look much different than those who single-task.
It turns out that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is involved with focus and emotional control, is smaller among people who engaged in lots of media multitasking compared to their single-tasking counterparts. Other research has associated reduced ACC size with mental health disorders, like anxiety and depression.
In related research, those who dedicated time to single focus (meditation exercises, etc.) for three months developed a thickened and more robust ACC. The reasonable conclusion here is that multitasking and single-tasking correspond to a change in how our brains look and operate.
While the research in this area is preliminary, one thing is for certain: spending our days flitting from one task to the next—checking email while on a work call, or sliding through Instagram while watching TV or hanging out with friends—may be atrophying parts of our brain that we should instead be working to strengthen.
How To Increase Focus
If you’re looking to boost productivity, multitasking isn’t the way to get there. Not only is it very costly energy-wise, it weakens the part of our brain that helps with emotional control and focus. But distraction can be a hard habit to break, especially since it is so evolutionarily ingrained. Looking for ways to cut the chatter and focus? Check back next week where I list my top tips for staying on task.