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.


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

Are You Really on Vacation If You're Checking Work Email or Calling In on Vacation?

Posted by Joe Robinson


As Americans flee their work stations in search of vacation R&R this summer, almost all will have a stowaway on board with them: a device that prevents them from actually being on vacation, their smartphone. Every email check-in with the office while on holiday insures that the psychological detachment needed to provide the restorative benefits of the vacation is harder to achieve.

Vacations may be the best work-life balance strategy there is—the best chance we have each year to fully live and reboot our health—but they can only help us if we are there mentally as well as in body. Checking work email or making business calls keeps the mind tethered to the stressors of the office.


A Trip Advisor survey of 16,000 people in 10 countries found that 77% of Americans work on their vacations, while 40% of Europeans do. I hate to point out the obvious, but maybe it’s not so obvious anymore: Vacations are supposed to be a respite from work, where you don’t do what you do the other 50 or 51 weeks a year. Remember?

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Vacations are a remarkable tool to restore health and wellness because, as studies by Dov Eden and others show, they interrupt the sources of stress—unless you keep those sources alive by checking work mail and doing business calls. Then the separation is gone and the mind is back at work, ruminating over anxieties and work issues that crowd out the experience of the vacation itself and the positive emotions key to our re-creation.

A study by Derks and Bakker found that excess phone checking while not at work interferes with work-life balance by taking time away from leisure activities that are more beneficial to mental detachment.

I saw that on display at an upscale Waikiki hotel that had an infinity pool. In the late afternoon on a gorgeous Hawaiian day, some 80% of people lounging around the pool had their heads stuck in their phones, not looking at the view of Diamond Head, the surf, nada. They could easily have been at home. Others in the pool were also hypnotized by their screens in a scene that would have inspired a great Rod Serling script.


The healing power of the vacation is remarkable. Vacations can cut the risk of heart attack in men by 30% (Gump) and in women who take more than one vacation a year by 50% (Framingham Heart Study). There’s no health food that can give you that benefit. Vacations stop burnout by regathering crashed emotional resources, such as a sense of social support and mastery (Hobfoll, Shirom).

The medication that performs these amazing feats is distance—mental and physical separation from the source of strains and pressures that drive stress. With the flow of stressful events and can’t-cope stories in the ancient brain shut off, the body can do what it is actually designed to do—repair you. The cure for the activation of stress is the rest and maintenance that comes from our own parasympathetic system. We are born to wind down. Failure to close off the flow of anxiety-activating emails and thoughts makes it harder for rehab to get under way.

Getting away from the job mentally was a lot easier before the digital era. The only way you could stick your nose into events back home was by loading up your pockets with a stash of coins and finding a pay phone booth or by running up a big bill on the room phone.

Now, of course, being at work on vacation is as easy as checking the phone. Since that is a reflex as natural as breathing these days, it’s hard for people to see the danger in it or the lack of self-discipline that has relinquished control of our minds to impulse and whim.


That’s partly because so many are addicted to devices, the byproduct of interruptions that erode impulse control. The more you check email, the more you have to check it, research shows, as your effortful control mechanism is compromised. We wind up being unable to resist impulsivity and self-interrupt our vacations by gazing into the glow of the electronic security blanket. More than a few people today have nomophobia, the fear of being without a mobile device. Are you one of them?

There are several issues keeping people tethered to devices on vacation—the addiction piece and lack of self-control, the fear of non-constant stimulation (i.e., a quiet brain), and employers who insist their employees check in on vacation. Let’s take them one at a time.


People who are addicted to their phones, as Rutgers’ Gayle Porter has demonstrated, have the same issue as substance abusers—no self-regulation or discipline to resist temptation to check messages or Facebook posts. This also means you have no ability to regulate other habits as well, whether it’s for Sara Lee or Jim Beam. The physical size of the habit-formation centers in your brain increase in size and the control and decision-making centers shrink.

A vacation can be your salvation, a way to opt out of mobile codependence and restore self-control. Why is that important? Without self-regulation, you can’t control your attention. Without attention, you can’t focus on your work or be present for your life. Without attention your mind jumps to the two other tenses that house your problems. Full attention gives you control. When you have control, you don't have stress.

You can’t experience the moment when every spare minute is filled with a reflex to grab the phone. Scientists say that defaulting to a phone every free minute prevents your brain from having any thoughts to process while you’re sleeping at night, a time when the brain connects the dots of the day and processes memories.

The solution to self-inflicted phone abuse is to impound your phone as much as possible on the trip. Lock it in a bag and only take it out for emergencies. Do not bring your work phone with you. Do not check your work email. Have clear conversations with colleagues and supervisors before leaving about what constitutes an emergency. Have them call if there’s an emergency.

Email should never be used for emergencies. As a result, there is no need for you to have to check mail for possible apocalypses while on vacation. You will know if a certain person called that you have to take this one call.

If you are an entrepreneur and there is no one to pick up the slack when you're on holiday, give clients an early heads-up to your vacation dates. Inform everyone several months out that you will be gone on these dates.  Try to take care of any issues in advance. Leave a vacation message on your autoresponder. The vast majority of clients will respect that you need time away just like everyone else. If you need to check email, set a restriction--once every two days, once a week, once a day--and don't vary from it.


The second reason for too much screen zombie action on vacation is fear, the cold, clammy anxiety of not having the phone to fill every empty moment. We have become so accustomed to being stimulated with noise and updates and positive reinforcement from our “likes” that we can’t bear the silence of quiet. We aren’t used to being alone with our thoughts. 

It turns out, though, that what we try to run away from—our own minds—by constant din operates on the same dynamic as fear. It’s the act of fleeing from fear and quiet that causes the anxiety. Standing astride the moment, not running, not stimulating, is what minds really like. Really.

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Being absorbed in the moment is a hallmark of all optimal experience. Whether it’s cycling a country road or drinking in the awe of a spectacular vista, paying attention isn’t scary, it’s what we’re here for. It’s key to liking what you do and remembering it, studies show. How much will you remember about your vacation experience by staring at a screen? What unknown activities will you miss out on? What ideas won’t pop into your head because it’s being monopolized by a screen? What fascinating fellow travelers will you never meet because you are locked up with your headphones with the “leave me alone” sign on?

The answer to the fear issue is to let go of the need to fill every moment. Let the vacation unspool with its own rhythm to take you out of your carefully scripted choreography. That’s where the adventures are. That’s what our brain neurons want: novelty and challenge more than anything else for long-term fulfillment. Only a still mind can find the peace we’re in search of on vacation.


Sometimes it’s not your choice to check in on vacation. The company requires that employees check in on vacation. This is counterproductive. The whole point of the vacation is to get employees recharged. That’s why American companies in the early part of the 20th century began the vacation tradition. Studies showed people were much more productive when they got back from a holiday.

Studies still show that, including several by Sabine Sonnentag, who also found that health problems and exhaustion decreased significantly on vacation. This is one of the reasons why Bart Lorang, head of software company Full Contact, pays his employees $7500 to take their vacation and to be unplugged when they are on it.

He knows that a complete mental break is what’s necessary to restore fatigued brains. Our chief productivity tool, attention, has to be recharged just like a smartphone. Mental exhaustion creates disengagement, the last thing an employer wants, since employee engagement results in 28% more productivity.


We can solve a lot of the compulsory email checking on vacation by a little time management and planning at the office beforehand. This is how Europeans go away on their vacations without tethers. Everyone plans vacation time at the beginning of the year. This way everyone knows when the gaps will occur. Then they figure out who can cover for everyone while on holiday in the tradition of cross-training, which the U.S. Army is a big proponent of.

German automaker Daimler, though, may have just figured it all out. They came up with a system that allows 100,000 of their employees to relax without email concerns on their holidays. Employees can set their email to auto-delete before they go on vacation. The software tells the sender the email will be deleted and not saved. The person is advised to contact someone else at the company, instead. This way employees come back to an empty in-box and have no concern about checking email on vacation.

Now that is an elegant solution, insuring continuity at the office while you’re gone and enforcing cold turkey on the email self-inflictors. May it spread far and wide and put an end to the theoretical vacation.

If you are interested in the topic of time and how to have more of it in our lives for happiness, health and community, I invite you to join the Time Matters Conference in Seattle Aug. 25-27. I will be speaking there, along with many other experts, from former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber to John de Graaf, author of Affluenza and What's an Economy For, Anyway, as well as many doctors, scientists, and professors talking about the effects of stress and the importance of recharging and refueling. Click here for a link to the conference schedule.

Tags: time management, vacations and email, vacations and stress, vacation planning, work life balance and vacations

Time Management and the "I'm Too Busy" Mental Block

Posted by Joe Robinson


Too much to do, not enough time. It’s the refrain of the crazy-busy age. But what if it wasn’t true? What if we had the time, but we weren’t using it properly? Studies by Geoffrey Godby and John P. Robinson (no relation to me) have found that we have more time than we think. It’s just not organized.

Organizing time isn’t just a case of savvy calendaring and prioritizing. The bigger hurdle takes place at the psychological and emotional level, in the beliefs we tell ourselves about the time we think we don’t have and the perceptions those thoughts lock us into.


Time operates on two levels—Greenwich Mean Time and the state of mind that interprets the world in temporal terms. The latter is the hidden key to time management and exiting the chronic frenzy and frazzle that happens when we confuse “busyness” with productive endeavor and make it our very identity. The “I’m too busy” mental block subverts time management and productivity on all sides.

If you tell yourself there’s no time, there isn’t any. If you tell yourself “I’m too busy,” you are. You’re too busy to have that extra conversation you need with a colleague, too busy to sit down for 15 minutes to plan priorities, too busy to get the recharge time to deactivate tension, too busy to understand the self-infliction of busyness.

In an unbounded, always-on world, it’s easy to get caught up in busyness. Yes, there is a lot to do, but we don’t have to do it all at one time, feel besieged, juggle all the to-do’s inside our head, default to terminal multitasking mode, or rush all day. Mental racing tells a part of the ancient brain that every minute of the day is an emergency. That turns on the danger signal of the stress response, i. e. fight-or-flight, and the false belief that we have to do everything faster than we’re doing it, or it will be Apocalypse Now.


Without stopping to think about what we’re doing, whether it’s a priority or not, and when the best time to do it is, the default is to action,  uninformed, reactive action that drives frenzy. The first step to time management, then, is a conscious mentality of effective pace. We have to step off the runaway train and put the conductor back at the cognitive wheel.

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As Daniel Kahneman reports in Fast and Slow Thinking, time pressure makes us do stupid things. We default to what he calls System 1 thinking—reactive, instinctive, making decisions not based on analysis or facts but on rash diagnostic bias, what appears familiar, or the last thought in our head. Time pressure impairs cognitive ability and fuels bad decision-making.

Obviously, there are deadlines that have to be met and urgent issues that land on our screens that need quick turnarounds. But when time pressure extends beyond due dates and immediate tasks to all the time, even at home, it can lead to perpetual time urgency. This drives a fixation with the passage of time that makes every task an emergency.

But it's not. It's false urgency, since the emergency your outmoded brain misinterprets is that you are going to die. You may have 200 emails, but you're not going to die from them. Since time frenzy activates the stress response, it's no surprise that studies show that time urgency is a heart attack risk. The pattern goes: Impatience leads to irritability, which leads to anger and clogged arteries. Unconscious speed mode undermines performance, rapport, and health. 


It’s a speed trap. Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent when we haven’t taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t. The way out of the frazzle and the first step to time management is to stop the busyness long enough to regulate pace, qualify urgency, prioritize, and change our perception of time and ourselves.

That means untangling identity from the reflex of unconscious busyness and redefining where true productivity comes from. When someone asks how we are, the tendency is to blurt out: Busy! Even if we’re not. Busyness has a habit of becoming ingrained with who we are. We wind up identifying as a person constantly in motion. Say "I'm too busy" often enough, and that is who you are.

Yet productivity is not a function of how busy you are or of constant commotion. Rote busyness is simply mechanical momentum, movement without an understanding of whether the commotion is moving things forward, without knowing where we are going or why and that we are creating extra work and stress by rushing through it.

It’s mobility that we want, not a badge of busyness and being able to say how swamped we are, which only intensifies time anxiety. Mobility comes from the opposite of hyperventilation—reflection and focused attention on the task, not the clock. This places us in the moment, instead of having to keep a part of our brain on the finish line. We get the work done faster without the ticking time bomb of the clock.


The perception of time changes from tormentor to friend when we take a breath to see what needs to be done and why at a given moment. When you set terms of engagement with tasks, you are in control, instead of a fearsome deadline or stack of to-do’s. The more you can be absorbed in what you are doing in the present, you remove the oxygen of time panic, which is agonizing about the future, a tense you can never be in anyway.

Time management boils down to attention management. If you are truly paying attention and not self-inflicting time stress by checking clocks or allowing unbounded distractions, you stay focused on the task you’re on. Attention comes from focus on a target. Trying to pay attention to multiple targets through multitasking or keeping to-do’s circling the mind like jets at LAX accelerates time tension and the chances of making a mistake while rushing.

So how do you or your team manage time, instead of being run by default fight-or-flight? It’s a daily practice, since the accelerators of time frenzy are all around us—emails, instant messages, texts, and the influence of others flying on hyperdrive.

We pick up on the emotions and expressions of others through mirror neurons. We have to make conscious choices to resist false urgency, our own and that of others. Here are a few keys to time management we don’t usually hear about:

  1. “I’m too busy” is a story, not your identity. Getting things done is the goal, not nonstop commotion.
  2. Stop, pause, and target attention. If you’re rushing for no reason, stop and stare at the clouds in the sky, or put on some music. Target your attention on something else. That breaks up the time frenzy entrainment.
  3. Restrict the amount of self-deadlines. We drive a lot of stress by setting arbitrary self-deadlines for this task or that dry cleaners that no one is holding us to. Avoid setting yourself up by seeing these targets as more approximate deadlines.
  4. Limit clock-checking. Each time we check the time, we self-inflict time stress and an interruption.
  5. Resist the hurry-worry of others. Choose not to accept the time frenzy of others. "Yes, I see they’re freaking out, but that is them. I will not react."
  6. Do time estimates of all your key tasks. It’s easy to be overly optimistic on turnaround times. Analyze how long it takes to do each of your main tasks. When you take an assignment, you know how much time to budget for it.

A classic false belief of the “I’m too busy” mindset is that, if you pause or even slow down, then you will fall behind. In fact, an effective pace insures that you won’t have to do everything over again by making the mistakes that come with rushing. It’s mechanical busyness, without thought as to where the busyness is going, that undermines progress.

Busyness and the time frenzy it fuels also do something more insidious. They make it impossible to savor accomplishments, since you have to instantly move on to the next thing and next thing on a treadmill that never ends to keep from falling behind the self-inflicted schedule.

They also make it hard to carve out time for your life, because you are always too busy to step back from hyperdrive.

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Tags: work productivity, crazy busy, time urgency, time stress, time management

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