Working Smarter

Losing Our Minds to Devices: Goodbye Impulse Control, Hello, Attention Deficit

Posted by Joe Robinson

Impulse control.jpg

You may remember the famed marshmallow test, the ingenious Stanford study that measured the ability of children to delay gratification by not immediately eating a marshmallow (or a cookie or pretzel in later tests) sitting right in front of them. Children four to six years old were told that, if they could hold off for 15 minutes and not gobble up the goodie, they would get two marshmallows.

Most of them couldn’t get through a minute without downing the treat. In later studies, the researchers found that those able to delay the reward had better SAT scores, educational accomplishments, and body mass index.

WHEREFORE WILLPOWER?

I wonder if most adults could make it through that test today if the treat was, instead, a smartphone. I doubt it. Adult discipline has gone the way of the dodo, thanks to the loss of the essential tool of willpower, impulse control, which is under siege by technology addiction. 

The battle between our impulsive urges and the reflective, rational brain is the elemental contest we all face. It's maturity vs. instinct, civilization vs. reflex emotion. Most of us learn by the time we’re adults to manage headlong impulses and think before we plunge into hare-brained actions we will regret later. Or at least that was the way it used to be.

The inability to manage devices and screen time has resulted in frazzled brains that have a much harder time getting the job done or carving out a semblance of life. Work-life balance can’t exist without impulse control. When devices are running the show, the work takes longer, studies show. Interruptions make us more aggravated and subject to stress and overwhelm. They also make every task we do seem more difficult than it actually is (Bailey and Konstan).

Technology addiction makes us unavailable to family and friends. With one eye on a screen, we are not present for conversation or caring. We hibernate indoors and miss the world outside awaiting us.

As Gayle Porter of Rutgers and others have demonstrated, technology is as addictive as substances. It does exactly the same thing that drugs do to your brain: removes the ability to resist temptation. You can't regulate your impulsivity anymore.

Technology brings a highly intoxicating mix of two hard-to-resist forces, positive reinforcement from the email or text and the survival instinct set off by the e-noisemakers, in other words, gratification and fear, which shred self-regulation, leaving attention functions dulled and inoperable. We are unconscious to it, letting devices run us, instead of adopting boundaries that put us and our chief productivity tool, attention, in charge. 

THE RISE OF ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER

At the root of impulse control is a signaling process in which sensory neurons trigger action responses in movement neurons. Researchers have found that people with low impulse control, such as those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, have movement neurons that jump into processing action without a deliberating filter.

When impulse control goes, so do attention spans. Minds flit from one thing to another like a monkey at play. More and more people have what’s called Attention Deficit Trait, which is like Attention Deficit Disorder, except you are not born with it. It’s characterized by high levels of distractibility, inability to focus, and difficulty seeing things through to completion.

Without the ability to control impulsivity, we are not just at the mercy of constant email or phone checking but also any other habits we might not like to have, from Jim Beam to Sara Lee. A recent study linked low impulse control to obesity.

An impulsive personality and a habit of acting without thinking first are risk-factors for weight gain, according to a study at the University of Texas (Filbey, Yeshuvath), opening up a new line of attack on eating issues.

Work-life balance is a function of proactive self-management. That means we have to be good at self-regulating, at planning and prioritizing to manage work and clear the space for life and home responsibilities. We can’t do that if we’re defaulting to a screen every free moment.

BLOWING UP WORKING MEMORY

To do any task, we have to use working memory, which consists of three to four thought chunks you can hang on to only for a few seconds. It’s very fragile stuff, more fragile still if you are distracted and have no attention span.

When the brain is hijacked by temptation to a secondary task or interruptions, it blows up the tenuous thought associations in your working memory. You lose what you were working on, and have to reconstruct your thoughts, or start over again if you can’t.

The ability to get anything done begins with the executive attention function in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It regulates what we attend to out of everything in front of us at any given moment. A part of this region, known as “effortful control,” regulates impulsivity. The more we check email or get interrupted, the more that mechanism is eroded, to the point that that we can’t stop ourselves from checking and self-inflicting interruptions. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

Researchers have found that we are more prone to acting impulsively when there is emotional distress (Tice, Bratslavsky) and time pressure. Add that to the siege of pings, chimes, rings, and pulses yanking our chains with the bottom-up attention of the survival instinct with devices, and the rational brain and what’s called System 2 thinking—slow and analytical—is no longer in charge. Instead, it’s all rote, instinctive, System 1 thinking—leap before you look, reflex, last thing in the memory, most familiar.

To restore functioning faculties tof the adult mind, we need to:

--Manage devices and interruptions by setting the terms of engagement with them. Turn off email, phones, and notifications, and only check them at designated times. This will make a huge difference in the number of interruptions that can erode your impulse control.

--Increase attention. This is something few of us are doing, so attention spans continue to shrink. The key to increasing attention is focusing on a target. We can build up attention like a muscle if we regularly engage in things that make us concentrate—chess, learning a language, Scrabble, reading a book, and the best tool for increasing focus: meditation, also known as mindfulness or the relaxation response.

You focus on your breath going in and out in one style of meditation and concentrate on a mantra, a couple of syllables repeated in your mind, in another, while sitting quietly for 20 minutes. Try it for a week. You’ll love it.

Assuming control of your impulses again by increasing your attention has all sorts of great outcomes. Studies show you will have less stress, like what you do more, remember it longer, and get it done faster. On the count of three, then, one, two, three—turn your email and phone off now.

For details on our Working Smarter Work-Life BalanceTime Management, or Information Management programs and restoring your team's impulse control, please click the button below: 

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Tags: email overload, interruption management, technology addiction, attention management, time management, information overlaod, impulse control and attention

Beat Email Overload and Overwhelm by Setting the Terms of Engagement with Devices

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Face-to-face conversations these days more often than not mean a face-to-scalp session, as you speak to the hair or pate of the person looking down at their phone. You can almost say anything, because they’re really not paying attention to you. “Hey, your car just got towed.” “Uh-huh.”

They hear human sounds in the world beyond their screen, but ask them to repeat it back, and they would be stumped. It’s not just the device that is impeding discourse, it’s the type of attention that is being brought to bear—divided and directed by the device, not by the device holder’s brain.

MULTITASKING SLOWS BRAIN NEURONS

The reflex is to try to both look at the phone and listen to the conversation, but doing both things at once is impossible. You can’t do more than one high cognitive task at a time, especially anything involving language, because there is only one neural channel for language to flow through. As a result, you are either doing one or the other task and switching back and forth between them. That switching has costs—time to figure out where you were on the other task each time there's a switch, fractured attention, inability to retain information, and rote behavior that operates on autopilot, i.e., the past, instead of focus on the present.

Multitasking forces attention down from the top floors of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, to the rote realms, like the hippocampus, which act on muscle memory. Thinking is sidelined for default action. Operating on rote mode is highly unproductive, as the data on multitasking shows. Productivity can drop from 40% to more than double that, according to David Meyer, a multitasking expert at the University of Michigan.

Download "Email & Attention Deficit"

Why would you want to work so ineffectively and scatter-brained? You wouldn’t—if you were thinking about it. But, alas, you’re not thinking about it. Almost none of us are. We are simply following orders from devices and interrupters. That means we are using a form of attention, bottom-up attention, that undermines focus and engagement and drives loss of control, stress, and overwhelm.

THE NOISEMAKER REFLEX

Bottom-up attention is a survival instinct. When a car backfires, we stop whatever we’re paying attention to and focus on the source of the threatening sound. Blood pressure increases, thoughts are constricted to the intrusion, and we lose the fragile thought chunks held together in short-term memory that we need to get our work done. Then we have to reconstruct later what it was we were doing before the interruption.

Research by U. C. Irvine’s Gloria Mark shows that it can take up to 25 minutes for your thoughts to get back to wherever they were before bottom-up attention took hold. Think of the hit to productivity that delivers multiple times a day.

The reason so many feel overwhelmed today is that attention is being driven, not by what our brains were designed for—selecting one thing to attend to—but by the bottom-up world of the noisemakers and flashers. The chimes, dings, chirps, and pulses, along with visual notifications (impossible to resist flashing lights; could be a threat) that keep us in startle response mode, a defensive posture, instead of on the attention offensive.

The key to restoring focus and productivity to the day is bringing back the kind of attention we need to get work done and concentrate: top-down attention. How do we do that? By setting the terms of engagement with the bottom-up brigade. That means creating strategies that put top-down attention in charge as much as possible. When we use the ability we are programmed with, to select and pay attention to one thing at a time, studies show we have more focus, less stress, we like what we’re doing more, and we remember it longer.

BOTTOM-UP DICTATOR

All of that good stuff comes from full absorption in what we’re doing, from something that used to be known as undivided attention. Reclaiming it requires that we deploy perimeters around the unbounded realm of bottom-up intruders. Like a city without traffic lights, a workplace without boundaries on the incoming is anarchy, a field day for bottom-up dictatorship.

When we’re not choosing what to pay attention to, and just reacting all day, we feel out of control, which is the root cause of overwhelm—a belief we can’t cope with demands. This is all your ancient brain needs to flip the danger switch of the stress response. It’s a huge attention saboteur, exploding working memory for a false emergency that constricts thoughts to the perceived crisis that isn’t one. The definition of stress is high demands and no control, what’s known as “latitude,” over the work environment.

When we select what we pay attention to and when, we have command and control to keep overwhelm at bay. We can set the terms of engagement with adjustments to how we work, by checking email at designated times and keeping it turned off otherwise, by shutting off the noisemakers on our email and phone, by creating no-interruption “focus” zones that allow us to concentrate by using 100%, undivided top-down attention, and by many other strategies that restore control and attention.

The average corporate email user gets 109 bottom-up emails a day. Business texts are up 67%. An interruption of just 4.4 seconds can triple the risk of errors. How sustainable is this path for your team or organization? There is a better way than terminal startle response all day. By putting the humans back in control.

If your team could use more top-down attention and less bottom-up, more focus and less overwhelm, we can get you there with our Work-Life Balance and Managing Crazy-Busy Workload training programs. If you would like to learn more, click the button below for more details. Proactive self-management is the answer to overwhelm and growing attention deficit.

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Tags: email overload, increasing productivity, interruptions and productivity, overwhelm, information overload programs, information overload, stress management, attention management, productivity and attention

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