Technology challenges us for reasons that aren’t always easy to grasp. Consider, for a moment, personal digital devices: smartphones, smartwatches and tablets. They represent a layer of technology that automatically augments our natural ability to see and hear things.
We find out events that happen hundreds and even thousands of miles away from us moments after they’ve occurred. We gather information from around the world, listen to the opinions of strangers, eavesdrop through blogs and social media posts in the thoughts of experts and learn about scientific breakthroughs as they’re announced.
Our eyes feast upon the Martian landscape:
Our ears intercept the secret language of sperm whales which we are trying to decode:
Our brain, conditioned by evolutionary selection to gather as much information as possible in order to keep us alive, gorges on all this data coming through our devices and asks for more. But there is a price to pay.
There is no such thing as a free lunch in nature. Every process that takes place does so at the energetic expense of something else. Processes that are important to our survival eat up the most resources, which is why paying attention is such an energetically expensive thing to do.
In the past, natural selection could be trusted to weed out inefficiencies. Those of our ancestors who were inclined to listen to the chirping of birds more than listen out for the footfall of a sabertooth tiger, for example, often failed to pass on their genes. So we ended up with brains that are especially attuned to signals that mean something important to us and bodies that are hardwired to neurochemically react the moment we receive them.
This is a great attribute to have when you’re a hunter-gathered alone, in the wild, in need of keeping out of the path of a sabertooth tiger on the prowl for prey but not so good when you’re stuck in an office, at your desk faced with a number of piling deadlines.
This is why:
In a different context but for the exact same reasons our attention becomes trapped and our brain is captured in an endless loop of doomscrolling. To break free of that requires both enhanced self-awareness and a coherent strategy.
Push Notifications Vie For Our Attention
Today, every website and every app wants us to pay attention to its content. It vies for that attention using push notification technology that pings our devices the moment it arrives. Our devices are conduits of important information. Key emails from contacts we are engaged with and breaking news are streams of information that allow us to function better in a digital, attention economy.
But the low-cost threshold of implementation associated with technology such as push notifications creates a constant stream of signals which our devices are not able to prioritize. The selfie of our best friend published on Instagram pings us as loudly as the urgent news that the Fed is raising interest rates again and certain stocks we are tracking are going down in value. The business email we have been waiting requires from us the same attention as notification of the latest movie added on Netflix and available for us to watch.
Each of these is important to us in different contexts. There is no way however to filter them in an everyday setting where we have to use technology for work as well as information and entertainment. When everything flows through the same channel (i.e. our personal devices) it becomes impossible to separate contexts. We are then subjected to a constant barrage of notifications we are forced to respond to in order to check, filter and prioritize for action.
So, what happens to the brain when the electronic signals it is attuned to are constant? Studies have shown that a brain that is on the lookout for signals while engaged in other tasks experiences a higher energetic cost for the tasks it performs and a small lag of concentration as it switches from one task to the other. This is called attentional blink and it is one of the reasons we are so bad at multi-tasking.
But that’s not the only thing that’s at work in that setting. We also suffer from:
- Fear of missing out (FOMO).
- Stress, as we are dealing with the arrival of information we can’t assess at times we don’t control, to which we feel we need to respond to.
- Guilt, as the higher energetic cost associated with tasks we should be able to breeze through now leaves us languishing in a state of procrastination.
- Helpless, as we are caught up in a loop where the more we use our personal devices, the less we achieve and the less in control we feel.
The net result of this is that the use of technology that is designed to empower us, through the confluence of a number of neurobiological and evolutionary factors, ends up becoming a problem that is making us less capable and less productive.
How To Better Deal With Technology’s Distractions
We are not stupid, of course. We have the capacity to devise strategies to help us through this issue. You can try a productivity hack called The Pomodoro Technique (“Pomodoro” is Italian for tomato). You can focus better by working out your own mission and vision.
When we better understand our response to a technology-originating stimulus we realize that what is really wrong is the context and not the stimulus itself. The challenge then becomes how to better manage both the stimulus and our response.
A recent study, for instance, showed that just by batching smartphone notifications we can increase our sense of well-being, reduce the amount of stress we feel and increase our productivity, all because we are more in control.
Summarizing all this then, technology becomes an aid to us, rather than a hindrance when:
- We establish ways to safeguard our inner resources and make better use of our digital tools.
- Create routines that give us back control of our time.
- Find ways to better filter distractions.
These are crucially important not just for us when we work in a business and need to maintain a certain level of productivity but also for any and every interaction outside the business where marketing, mailing lists, push notifications, subscription newsletters and direct messaging add to the noise that drowns the signal potential customers seek.
It’s exactly the reason I don’t have a mailing list.
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