Human brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time. Back in the hunter-gatherer days, it enabled our ancestors to hunt animals, to create and fashion tools, and to protect their clan from predators and invading neighbours. We developed an attentional filter to help us to stay on task, letting through only information that was important enough to deserve disrupting our train of thought. But something happened on the way to the 21st century: The excessive amounts of information and the technologies that serve it changed the way we use our brains.
The cost of attentional switching
The human brain isn’t designed to handle more than two tasks that require a lot of brain function at once. What’s more interesting is that the popularised concept of multitasking is cognitively impossible. The cerebral cortex in our brain is responsible for organising our tasks at hand. In a sense, it works like a control center, switching ‘on’ and ‘off’ as you move from one task to another. These switches happen so quickly that you might not even notice them, giving you the illusion of multitasking. Instead, what you’re actually doing is switching rapidly between different tasks. Ultimately, the more complex the task, the longer the switching takes.
In his book, The Organized Mind, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin talks about the attentional switching cost. Although it may only take you a minute to engage with each new email when it arrives, the distraction of a new email lasts longer than a minute. Productivity has been proven to be reduced by up to 40 percent as a consequence of the task switching, as it takes time to truly reconnect with what you’re working on. In fact, most of us lose 28 percent or 2.1 hours a day of our productivity to constant interruptions and recovery time.
David Rock, author of Your Brain At Work, informed us that the average person checks their phone over a hundred times per day. In fact, Rock said, incoming information can be addictive. ‘Studies show that receiving information activates our brain’s reward center. Every time we get information, we get a chemical reward.’ That’s why we check our devices a hundred times a day. We don’t need to, but it feels good. We may find real value in that information five times per day – but ninety-five out of a hundred, we’re only getting a chemical reward.
“The reward creates a pattern,” concluded Rock. “It feels good, but it’s not making us smarter. It’s probably making us less intelligent, because our brains are noisier and more distracted.”
Switching frequently between a lot of tasks is not healthy, and research shows it can even have a harmful impact on the brain, leading us to use our brains less effectively. Participants in a study carried out by the University of London experienced IQ drops of 15 points when switching too frequently between tasks. This, however, comes with a quick fix. Clifford Nass, Researcher at Stanford University, suggests that rather than frequent switches, try to dedicate 20 minutes to a single task, then switch to the next. He calls this the 20-minute rule.
Later, we’ll take a look at additional techniques to help us stay focused and on task, but first, let’s explore what exactly data overload is doing to us.
Data overload - fight or flee?
As humans, we have a limited capacity for information processing, and when our brain can no longer provide the attention required for certain tasks, it gets overloaded. This results in the loss of ability to make decisions, process information and prioritise tasks. The term ‘information overload’ was first coined in 1970 by American sociologist and futurologist Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock. At the time, Toffler could hardly anticipate what this would come to mean 40 years later.
We spoke to Dan Siegel, author of Brainstorm: The Power And Purpose Of The Teenage Brain, who explained that too much information can trigger an overwhelming panic response - the normal human response to threats. This is especially true for people who must process absurd amounts of information for work.
‘It may sound silly,’ Siegel remarked. ‘You might think: How can we be threatened by data? But if you’re worried that you can’t accomplish your job, and that your boss might think you’re incompetent, then you may react to that as a threat. In reactivity, we may fight back or flee or even collapse when we feel helpless.’
However, it’s worth remembering that stress isn’t always bad. Stress can be a positive indicator, because it means you’re doing something that’s important to you.
‘Anything that matters can give you stress,’ Siegel explained. ‘A life without stress can sometimes be a life without significance. But how you interpret the body’s response makes all the difference. A lot of new research shows that it’s possible to develop your self-awareness to the extent that you can approach something in a positive way, that for another person would be negatively stressful. Another person might feel flooded or overwhelmed, but you can develop a way to approach the data in a constructive manner.’
While information overload might be a growing problem, the key thing to remember is that we can take back control. We’re beginning to understand how we are affected by information overload, and we’re creating new tools for it, too. These tools can help us filter, dismiss and delegate information and prioritise tasks, giving us the ability to handle the flood of digital data that’s coming at us daily.
Changing our minds - The adaptable human
Throughout time, human brains have become bigger and more intelligent. This has always been a natural process, and our brains have evolved at a pace of their own. Today, technology sets the pace, frequently forcing our brains to get to grasps with new inventions. We’re left with the question, ‘Can we keep up?’
Human beings have consistently proven that we’re good at adapting to new technologies, yet modern information technology critics fear that technology and the implications behind it would come to control us before we learned how to control them. However, it’s important to understand that technology and society shape each other, as we’re looking at a dynamic, ever-evolving relationship. Joel Garrau, author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human, states in his book that, ‘Just because the problems are increasing doesn’t mean solutions might not also be increasing to match them.’
Researchers are still in the early stages of unearthing the exact effects of technology use on our brains. The reports vary and are often contradictory. Some studies claim technology use increases anxiety and impatience and decreases the ability to focus, learn and remember, while other findings show that it increases trust, social support and close relationships.
Ultimately, like we’ve always done in the past, modern humans are developing new organisational strategies and tools in order to cope with vast amounts of information, using technology to solve a problem that was caused by technology itself.
Below are just a few apps that help us cope with information overload and release some pressure from the brain:
The Email Game turns cleaning your inbox into a cute game. From a neuroscience perspective, The Email Game converts your email into a tool that works better for cleaning – it eliminates the extraneous cognitive load of using a toolset that’s not optimised for organisation.
Inbox Pause allows you to take a break from your inbox, in case you need to work on emails but are getting distracted by new messages. You get to control when messages appear in your inbox, making sure you only see certain emails when you’re ready for them.
Boomerang allows you to schedule email for later (available for Outlook as well as Gmail). Boomerang frees up working memory, because it means that you won’t have to remember to send the message later.
Lumosity is a neuroscientist-approved app that can help improve your memory, attention and other mental skills. You can create a personalised training programme that’ll enhance your cognition. Play it on your commute or during your break to keep your brain sharp.
Elevate is a cognitive training tool designed to help you improve your communication and analytical skills and increase your memory and focus. Exercise your mind with 25 beautifully designed games.
Productivity and focus
Pomodoro helps you manage your energy levels by breaking your day into 25-minute chunks (‘pomodoros’). The app is great for optimising your productivity and help those that struggle with time management.
Vitamin R is a multi-tool app that helps you time-box (perfect for the Pomodoro Technique mentioned above) and control your concentration, pushing you to work harder and faster and helping to reduce procrastination. The tool also makes recommendations for how much time you should spend on a task, makes task switching as efficient as possible and helps you take productive breaks. The app is popular among people with ADHD.
Isolater is a menu bar application that helps you concentrate by covering your desktop, icons, and other open windows, letting you focus on the task at hand.
Focus helps you create an optimal work environment. The Mac app lets you reclaim your productivity by blocking distracting sites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. The app can be used across all browsers and you can block websites during key times to stay productive.
Pocket saves those random, useful but distracting internet finds for later so you can stay focussed on the task at hand when surfing the web.
Focus@Will streams scientifically optimised music intended to boost your concentration and focus. A productivity tracker helps you record your productivity and to personalise your sound sessions based on your cognitive type and your biorhythms.
Quantified Mind is a free online cognitive optimisation platform using carefully designed tests that help you figure out what time of day you are most productive and can get the most out of your brain.
Headspace offers guided meditation sessions on any device and tips on how to apply mindfulness to everyday activities. The user picks the length and theme of each session and there is a free 10-day beginners programme to help you get started. Mindfulness meditation has been scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety and increase focus, creativity, confidence and communication skills.
Mental Workout helps you learn meditation, improve your sleeping habits, reduce stress levels and increase your focus. Both beginners and seasoned practitioners can not only enjoy meditation exercises, but also access inspirational talks, body scan and relaxation instructions.
A better environment
Technology in the last 10 years might not have done much in terms of pushing us towards a more attentive and focused state of mind. Yes, we might be facing an abundance of information each day, but does that mean we’re powerless and will we just stay distracted all day long? Of course not. We have choices. Realistically, it’s impossible to achieve a perfect day without disruptions, that’s just the world we have created for ourselves. What we can do, however, is choose what matters to us the most and work towards eliminating any obstacles that prevent us from focusing on those things. As we become increasingly aware of technology’s ability to help solve an issue that, paradoxically, was created by technology itself, we can slowly and surely guide ourselves towards creating a healthier environment for our brains, and leave our distracted and disrupted mindset behind.
Tell us, do you use technology in order to help you stay focused and keep your days disruption free?