This is the Brain on iPads
By Danuta McCall

October 08, 2014

We’ve been living with information overload from our computers and smartphones for long enough that studies are beginning to draw conclusions that are a bit worrisome. The most benign of these conclusions is that multi-tasking doesn’t increase productivity for the most part, in fact you lose about 20-30% efficiency going back and forth between tasks. Scientists are also beginning to point out that people who communicate predominantly through electronic means are forgetting how to read verbal cues and body language.

I am reminded of a New York Times article from a few years ago entitled Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price . The main character in the article is your typical 30-something small business owner, who falls asleep every night with a laptop or iPhone on his chest, and goes online as soon as he wakes up. Seems his family has noticed that he gets downright “crotchety until he gets his fix”.

The article references several studies, in particular a 2004 Stanford study, that point to the possibility that the excitement of responding to a constant wave of applications, tweets, and other bursts of information is akin to the primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation causes bursts of dopamine to the brain and can become quite addictive. People with addictions often think that they perform better under the influence, and many people think that multitasking makes them more productive, but research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. What’s even more interesting is that scientists have demonstrated that this can have a permanent effect, so that the brain becomes wired to multitask no matter what the situation: “the chime of incoming e-mail can override the goal of writing a business plan or playing catch with the children”.

So what do we do? I think the answer is – we acknowledge the problem and mitigate. Multi-tasking is an essential survival skill in certain situations, and a health concern in others. Once we recognize the imbalance we can consciously build habits that bring us back to center. For example:

  • Build in moments of focused single-tasking, which could be as simple as getting up regularly to stretch, look around and observe your surroundings.
  • If you feel the urge to check your email or switch to another task, stop yourself. Breathe deeply. Re-focus yourself. Take a few minutes to meditate.
  • Set aside blocks of time which are exclusively for one activity (could be work related, or recreational). Practice focusing in an enjoyable way.

In the workplace,

  • Prioritize tasks and set up blocks of time to do each one, starting with the most important, interspersed with periods for checking in and catching up on all the new stuff that’s come in. Be disciplined about how long you give yourself to check email, tweets and all other information sources.
  • Design a creative thinking space for yourself, as did NASA Langley Research Center, as part of their overall Center Innovation/Creativity Initiative. This is a private work area for researchers to be away from their usual setting, a comfortable and quiet space to focus.
  • Keep meetings focused and participatory. By using the right technology tools, such as group decision support software, you can keep participants engaged and away from their emails.

Nicholas Carr wrote in response to this article “Life would be intolerable if we weren’t able to multitask. Imagine not being able to cook a meal while listening to the radio or chatting with your spouse.” I agree – the ability to multitask in appropriate contexts and in moderate amounts is a valuable skill; we just need to recognize that too much of any good thing can be bad for your health.

posted by Posted by Danuta McCall