I'll admit it. I even take my phone with me to fire off a few texts when I go to the restroom. Or I'll scroll through my email when I leave the office for lunch. My eyes are often glued to my phone from the moment I wake up, but I often reach the end of my days wondering what I've accomplished.
My productivity mystery was solved after reading “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World," by University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley and California State University, Dominguez Hills professor emeritus Larry Rosen. The book explains why the brain can't multitask, and why my near-obsessive efforts to keep up on emails is likely lowering my productive output.
How the Digital Age Zaps Productivity
I visited Gazzaley in his UCSF laboratory, Neuroscape, to learn more about the science of distraction. Gazzaley pulled up, on a TV screen, a 3-D image of a brain, created from an MRI Scan. He pointed to different sections to explain what's going on when our attention flits between tasks.
"The prefrontal cortex is the area most challenged," Gazzely says. "And then visual areas, auditory areas, and the hippocampus — these networks are really what's challenged when we are constantly switching between multiple tasks that our technological world might throw at us."
When you engage in one task at a time, the prefrontal cortex works in harmony with other parts of the brain, but when you toss in another task it forces the left and right sides of the brain to work independently. The process of splitting our attention usually leads to mistakes.
In other words, each time our eyes glance away from our computer monitor to sneak a peak at a text message, the brain takes in new information, which reduces our primary focus. We think the mind can juggle two or three activities successfully at once, but Gazzaley says we woefully overestimate our ability to multitask.
"An example is when you attempt to check your email while on a conference call," says Gazzaley. "The act of doing that makes it so incredibly obvious how you can't really parallel process two attention-demanding tasks. You either have to catch up and ask what happened in the conversation, or you have to read over the email before you send it — if you're wise!"
Answering an Email Takes A Lot Longer Than You Think
Gazzaley stresses that our tendency to respond immediately to emails and texts hinders high-level thinking. If you're working on a project and you stop to answer an email, the research shows, it will take you nearly a half-hour to get back on task.
"When a focused stream of thought is interrupted it needs to be reset," explains Gazzaley. "You can't just press a button and switch back to it. You have to re-engage those thought processes, and recreate all the elements of what you were engaged in. That takes time, and frequently one interruption leads to another."
In other words, repetitively switching tasks lowers performance and productivity because your brain can only fully and efficiently focus on one thing at a time.
Plus, mounting evidence shows that multitasking could impair the brain's cognitive abilities. Stanford researchers studied the minds of people who regularly engage in several digital communication streams at once. They found that high-tech jugglers struggle to pay attention, recall information, or complete one task at a time.
“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” says Stanford neuroscientist Anthony Wagner. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”
The researchers are still studying what's causing multitaskers to perform poorly on cognitive tests. It could be that they are born with an inability to concentrate, or digital distractions are taking a toll. In any case, the researchers believe the minds of multitaskers are not performing optimally.
And the habit of multitasking could lower your score on an IQ test, according to researchers at the University of London.
Creating Digital Boundaries
But don't worry. Gazzaley says. It’s not about opting out of technology. In fact, there's a time and place for multitasking. If you’re in the midst of a mundane task that just has to get done, it’s probably not detrimental to have your phone nearby or a bunch of tabs open. The distractions may reduce boredom and help you stay engaged. But if you’re finishing a business plan, or a high-level writing project, then it’s a good idea to set yourself up to stay focused.
Check out Gazzaley's tips for turning off distractions in the sidebar above.
Now, get back to work!
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