Working Smarter

How Unbounded Devices Shred Impulse Control, Attention, and Willpower

Posted by Joe Robinson


HUMANS HAVE an unfortunate knack for getting in our own way. We tend to specialize in unforced errors—false beliefs, delusions, and habits that undercut the indispensable tool that keeps us from self-inflicting more sabotage: impulse control.

More and more of us are losing it, and with it, the ability to regulate impulsivity, which means we are also losing the discipline to stay on task, avoid temptations, manage stress, and even process thoughts while sleeping. 

It used to be that impulse control issues were confined to children and adults with psychiatric conditions or substance abuse, but these days it’s infecting a whole bunch of us, thanks to the siege of unbounded devices and interruptions. The more interruptions you have, the more a part of your executive attention function that regulates impulse control, known as effortful control, is eroded.


In other words, the more we check email or Facebook posts, the more we have to check them. You can see the impulse control deficit everywhere—from colleagues who don’t hear a word you’re saying because they are glued to their phones, to family members AWOL on devices at the dinner table, to oblivious text walkers blithely walking against a red light, to what I saw recently at the gym. Every single person in view was staring at their phones, some trying to do exercises on the machines while holding onto the sacred device with one hand. It’s like mass hypnosis, Invasion of the Mind Snatchers.

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And speaking of snatched minds, researchers say that, if you default to your device every spare moment, when you sleep at night, you won’t have any thoughts to process. Sleep helps us find patterns and solutions to problems, but the catch is you have to have thoughts in your head during the day to have anything to process at night. Device reflex preempts the thinking and musing needed process events.

Digital and mobile devices are wonderful tools, but there is a price for abusing them. Researchers like Gayle Porter of Rutgers have found that technology is as addicting as any substance. After all, what is the definition of addiction? It’s the inability to regulate impulsivity—and an obsessive compulsion to engage over and over in an activity of instant gratification. Sound familiar?

Temple University researchers Henry Wilmer and Jason Chein found that excessive use of mobile devices is associated with weakened ability to delay gratification and increased impulsive behavior. The constant default to notifications, bongs, chirps, and chimes plays havoc with self-regulatory and cognitive control that support goal-directed behaviors.

The study discovered that mobile technology habits, “such as frequent checking, are driven most strongly by uncontrolled impulses and not by the desire to pursue rewards.” Compulsive device use, then, isn’t triggered as much by the positive reinforcement of an email response, but by an irresistible urge—due to impulse control malfunction.


Impulse control is central to attention, our chief productivity tool. As self-regulation capacity is reduced, so is the attention span. This creates a constant need to shift to the next quick escape/stimulation and away from anything that requires effort and discipline.

The result is high distractibility, multitasking, impatience and flitting from one thing to the next in a pattern known as Attention Deficit Trait. It’s not a condition you are born with, such as Attention Deficit Disorder; it’s a byproduct of information overload and interruptions that overwhelm the brain’s attentional faculties and wind up mimicking that condition.

When impulse control is compromised, it doesn’t just affect email checking. It undermines ability to regulate any habit you may have, whether it’s Jim Beam, chocolate, or outbursts of anger. The habit formation cells in the brain actually grow larger and the goal centers shrink.

Paying attention is all about a goal. You want to do something, learn something, experience something, but you can’t do it unless you marshal your self-regulation equipment to hold off all the distractions while you focus. That takes effort and effort takes impulse control, more of it than you might even imagine.

This is because all the tasks we do every day are dependent on a very fragile tool: working memory. Also known as short-term memory, working memory is the faculty we use to get anything done. It’s a maximum of three to four thought chunks that we can hang on to for only a handful of seconds. Without a functioning impulse control mechanism, it’s very hard to keep those thoughts together. Impulsive phone and email checking and interruptions blow up working memory as they detonate attention and effort.


It’s not only working memory that is at risk, though, when impulse control systems are down. There are more than 1.3 million car accidents every year caused by people on their phones while driving. Research shows the dynamic behind those tragedies—people who engage in impulsive behavior are less apt to delay actions for a later reward (Hayashi, Russ, Wirth, 2015).

Without impulse control, instant gratification is the guiding instinct. As the word “instant” implies, there is no real thinking here, only reflex. That effectively eliminates rational decision-making. It leads to what Nobel-prize winning researcher Daniel Kahneman calls “System 1” thinking—impulsive, shallow, jump-off-the-cliff, last thing in the memory. And it’s wrong a lot of the time.

Time pressure and rushing, another habitual behavior in the workplace egged on by the unmanaged use of devices, also cause a loss of impulse control. Instead of analyzing the situation, brains skip analysis and leap headlong into rash decisions.

Most of the rushing today is false urgency. Everything appears urgent when we haven’t taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t. It’s important to counter rush mode with “System 2” thinking, which Kahneman calls “slow thinking,” which allows the analytical brain to weigh all the factors before a decision. Is it an emergency or a speed trap?

Without impulse control, we are at the mercy of our emotional reactions to events, which drives stress. The data show that interruptions make every task you do seem more difficult by jacking up the aggravation load 105% (Bailey, Konstan).

Preserving impulse control is essential, then, to avoid destructive decisions and habits, protect working memory, and reduce stress and burnout. How do we do that? The humans have to be in charge of the devices, instead of the other way around. Information management is key. Turn off email and cell phones and check them at designated times. Create an Email Etiquette and Norms Guide, something I help develop in trainings for my work-life balance, stress management, and time management clients. That puts you in control.

Stop multitasking, another habit that blitzes self-regulation and drives impulsivity. Increase attention through activities shown to build focus in the prefrontal cortex—mindfulness, chess, learning a language or instrument, and spend more time in nature, which takes attenton off anxieties and increases positive mood. 

Substitute a good habit for a bad one. Every time impulse strikes, stop yourself and practice delayed gratification. You'll get to it when you are not in your car, after other priorities are taken care of, when you, not your inner saboteur, are in charge.

For details on how our work-life balance, stress management, and time management employee training can help restore impulse control, cut stress, and build productivity on your team, click the button below:

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Tags: email overload, technology addiction, impulse control,, information management, attention and impulse control, self-discipline

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.


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. 


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.


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.

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

The Cure for Zombie Phone Staring and Email Checking: Impulse Control

Posted by Joe Robinson


There’s a reason it’s hard to stop checking your email and why everyone around you is staring at screens like zombies. The more you check email, the more you have to check it. 

It turns out that constant interruptions erode impulse control. We lose the ability to regulate our impulsivity, which is to say, we lose self-discipline, essential to getting things done and warding off addictive behavior—which includes technology. Your devices have been shown to be as addicting as any substance.

People who have gone off the rails of digital interruption and distraction are more inclined to interrupt you, suffer from a bad case of crisis mentality, call you to see if you got the email they sent two minutes ago, and have difficulty focusing on tasks to completion or concentrating, the latter leading to a condition known as Attention Deficit Trait. The lack of control also drives stress and aggravation.


It all makes a crazy-busy world even crazier. What every office could use is the return of something that used to be a crucial element of functioning adults: willpower. Willpower is the engine of self-control, the ability to manage thoughts, emotions and harmful habits and override momentary desires. Not much gets done without it.

In a world of instant gratification, delaying payoff isn’t a popular choice—not surprisingly, because self-regulation is hard. It’s hard for brain neurons to resist an easier path. Since early humans didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, the species developed a habit for going for the bird in the hand.

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The use of willpower also burns up resources. To stay on task, resist an impulsive action, or remain disciplined expends mental energy. That has to be replaced. Self-regulation expert Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has documented that after long hours of staying disciplined, the self-regulation equipment tends to flag at night.

Luckily, researchers say willpower is something we can all build like a muscle. We can improve our ability to hold off temptations at hand and persevere for a later reward. 

A 2000 Florida State University study found that mental resources are depleted by self-regulating processes such as resisting temptation, restraining aggression and coping with fear. The research suggested that self-control is a limited resource that must be resupplied regularly; each act of self-regulation makes it harder to perform another, because it eats up precious mental resources needed for discipline.


But more recent data indicates that willpower is not so limited after all. You have enough to meet any challenge—if you believe you do. It’s all about mindset. 

“We don’t say it’s unlimited. At some point you do need to replenish,” says Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor and a leading motivation researcher. But willpower, she says, “is a much larger resource than previously thought. You can get tired, but it doesn’t mean you’re out of gas.”

Dweck and her colleagues have found that people who believe their willpower is limited feel tapped out after a strenuous mental task, while those who believe they have abundant willpower are able to push on. “Those with an abundant view aren’t monitoring themselves. They’re just kind of carrying on,” she says.

And once you resist temptation, it’s easier to resist it in the future. You can build willpower over time, in other words, by using it—something you can do by deploying the right motivation and belief systems, priming persistence and sidelining the quick-fix ego.


Achievement takes effort, and effort requires command of a brain function known as “effortful control.” Part of the executive attention function system, a disciplined effortful control mechanism is essential to self-control and the ability to resist temptation. It regulates impulse control, which prevents you from checking email when you’re trying to complete a task. 

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation. Similarly, people who are “cognitively busy” are more likely to make selfish choices. (He points out that a few drinks have the same effect, as does a sleepless night—the self-control of “morning people” is impaired at night, and vice versa.)

Other researchers have found that self-regulation depletes energy in the brain in the form of blood glucose. Subjects given sugary drinks were able to replenish resources to take on hard tasks that demanded self-control. Yet as Dweck discovered, there is another energy source: one’s own belief system and the motivation that drives it. Priming yourself with a realistic expectation of a rough road and the belief that you are up to it can get you through.

When motivation is driven by intrinsic goals that align with one’s inner goals—learning, challenge or the thought of making a difference—one has more staying power. When motivation is external—money, fame, praise, status—it’s harder to stick with it. 

In one study, Dweck found that college students who were concerned about grades and self-validation (external performance goals) weren’t as interested in tackling difficult goals with the possibility of failure, showing “substantial decreases in intrinsic motivation” after a significant setback. On the other hand, students who were in it for the learning—who want to work harder to increase their understanding—persevered.  

Researchers have found that rehearsing in one’s head the reaction to setbacks can help subjects resist temptation and overcome anxiety. Instead of reacting with autopilot panic and stress when the going gets tough, you can teach the brain to have a different reaction.

People “who persist have the idea that they can improve their abilities,” Dweck says. It comes down to “recognizing that you have more willpower than you think and finding strategies to put that into practice.”

Tags: email overload, work-life balance training, crazy busy, information management programs, technology addiction, productivity, work life balance programs, stress management programs, work stress, managing stress

Technology Harder to Resist Than Drugs

Posted by Joe Robinson

Email overload erodes impulse control

Exhibit number one for the addictive power of technology has to be the text-walking phenomenon, in which pedestrians glued to their screens walk off curbs into traffic accidents, open ditches, off docks, and wind up in ER’s. The urge to text or check email is so powerful it overrides the survival instinct.

It's always amazing to see people, head down in their phones, inching across crosswalks against full-on red lights, oblivious to the fact that they are exposed to cars that could mow them down like bowling pins. 

This kind of death-wish behavior comes courtesy of an urge stronger, apparently, than the one to stay alive. Several deaths in South Korea have been attributable to video gamers ignoring all sustenance in marathon several-day sessions.


What drives this behavior? Researchers have found that technology obliterates willpower and is the hardest of all urges to resist, harder than alcohol or drugs, according to a German study of 205 adults.

Resisting Facebook, smartphones, and texting is right up there with turning down a margarita for an alcoholic. One of the reasons technology is so addictive is that it plays to one of the social animal’s most powerful needs, the need for positive reinforcement. Send an email and get one back, and you get reinforcement, but it's an ephemeral version, feeding the urge for more validation, because real validation comes from the inside, not external approval.

You can see the hold technology has when you try to engage in a conversation with someone who has a smartphone in hand. Eye contact: zero. Listening abilities: nada. You might as well be talking to a cucumber.

Technology has such a powerful hold on us, because it erodes willpower in several ways. It’s easy to indulge in all day long, the study reports, and unlike alcohol and drugs, it doesn’t have high perceived costs. Yet the damage is being done inside brains, as the constant interruptions and mail-checking erode the self-regulation equipment and drive stress and obliterate work-life balance.


The more you check email, the more you have to check it, as any smartphone user knows. You lose impulse control and the ability to regulate impulsivity. The result: It's hard to stay on task or concentrate. The urge to check or text, minus impulse control, sets off a cycle of self-interruption. It also makes it harder to regulate impulsive behavior in other areas of life beyond technology that might be prone to habits you could do without. 

When the devices are in charge of attention, the more job stress there is, since the chimes, bells, pulses, and noisemakers play to the survival instinct of “bottom-up” attention, something we are wired to have no resistance to, since that sound could be a threat to life and limb.

We all pay when technology is unbounded, in the form of shrinking attention spans, more time pressure and stress, fractured concentration, frayed relationships, and text-walkers barging into traffic.

If technology is an addiction harder to resist than drugs, it's time for an intervention. A good email overload program or information management system can save impulse control mechanisms, control email overload, dramatically cut job stress, and cure technology addiction. Manage the devices, instead of the other way around, and you're back in control.

When we set the terms of engagement with devices, not only does it restore willpower, the work gets done faster, with vastly improved stress management, and more attention. And we don’t go off the deep end of curbs and piers.

Tags: email overload, text walking, technology addiction, work life balance, stress management, job stress

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