by Jeff Lucas on January 10, 2022
The message that popped up on my computer screen seemed innocuous enough, announcing that it was time for my software to be updated. A single mouse click would launch the procedure. Usually, I pause before performing this techno-task and ensure that my precious data is safe by backing it up. But that day, I was working on about ten projects at once. Without thinking, I clicked. Big mistake.
Two hours later, I was left holding a laptop that was damaged beyond repair, my hard drive nuked, my data all gone. Book manuscripts, accounts, emails - they were all vaporized. I wish I could report that I responded to this crisis with quiet repose, affirming that the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the Name of the Lord. Instead, I believe that my scream was overheard by distant aliens in Jupiter. I spent three days with a ‘genius’ who valiantly tried to help me. I won’t name the computer company, that would be quite wrong. Besides, I like the design of the piece of fruit that adorns my laptop, even if it is now only useful as a doorstop.
A few days later I popped into a bathroom and having washed my hands, I stood for thirty seconds with my hands outstretched in a worshipful position, waiting for the hot air to dry them. And then the truth dawned. I was actually waiting in vain for a vending machine to dry my hands. Passers-by were bemused by the chap who seemed lost in adoration before a silver box that dispenses breath mints. Awkward.
Both of these episodes happened because I was multi-tasking. Texting while I was walking into the bathroom, I paused my texting to answer the phone and then got an email. Focused I was not.
Unfocused and distracted is what most of us are. Half of those who use tablets, like iPads, visit social networking sites while watching television. Two-thirds check out emails while watching tv. According to one academic, we’re living in the age of infomania. Armed with smartphones that double as calculators, stock market scoreboard, web browser, email, game console, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight, we’re constantly multitasking. While having lunch with friends, we surreptitiously check to see what our other friends are doing and even post photographs of the cheese and ham sandwich that we’re snacking on so that the universe can stand amazed in awe and wonder.
And although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist and one of the world experts on divided attention, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” According to a study at the University of Sussex in England, constant multitasking actually damages your brain. They found out that people who regularly multitask have lower brain density in the region of their brain responsible for empathy, cognitive control, and emotional control. Studies have found that multitasking reduces your productivity by 40%.
So go ahead, and do the unthinkable. Turn things off. Turn off your phone so the Pavlovian beeps don’t distract you. Turn off browser notifications. Turn off email notifications. You can attend to all of those things later.
Build “technology breaks” into your schedule, both at work and at home. Why not avoid email and all screens for the first and last hour of the day so that you wake up and engage in a deeper, more focused activity of some sort? And at night, sleep studies show that being in front of a computer screen for the final moments of the day will rob us of rest. Those screens are an energy source that stimulates rather than relax.
Oops, my phone just beeped, demanding my instant attention. And although it takes the greatest effort, I’ve made a decision.
It can wait.
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