When it comes to our relationship with our devices — we are slaves. Their glowing screens and flashing alerts are so incredibly tempting, and whether or not we’d like to admit it, they’re our kryptonite.
Thankfully, the solution is not to divorce ourselves from technology altogether, explains Adam Gazzaley, a professor in the departments of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at the University of California and author of a book about our behavior in a high-tech culture,“The Distracted Mind.”
“We just need to learn how to take control and manage it better,” he says.
With that in mind, Gazzaley walked us through a series of tips for staying on task amid the chaos of a digital-distraction-filled world.
Change the expectations
One of the main challenges that comes with the ubiquity of technology is the expectation that people be available 24/7. The goal then, explains Gazzaley, is to rewrite the expectations. “With people that contact you, let them know that if they don’t hear back from a text or email immediately, it’s OK,” says Gazzaley. The same goes for the workplace. Whether it’s informing coworkers that you won’t be responding to emails on the commute home or the more blatant, “putting up a code of silence,” essentially, a do not disturb sign, the main goal is to clearly define your availability.
While concentrating on a task for an extended period of time can be difficult, mapping out a series of breaks can make the task more manageable, says Gazzaley. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean checking your email or social media,” he explains. “Reverting back to technology could lead to a recursive cycle of getting pulled further and further away from your goals.” Instead, rather than going down the Facebook hole, he suggests an outdoor walk, light exercise or perhaps the most beneficial: meditation. Not only do meditative techniques help improve sustained attention, explains Gazzaley, “they also help you learn how to recognize when you are internally being distracted, and then return your attention back to your goals.”
Out of sight helps
“The fact that technology is always right there, and that it can ping you, without you even asking for it, is really a lot for us to deal with,” says Gazzaley. To avoid getting sucked in by these alerts, he suggests diminishing your access to technology. “This means shutting down your email program — not just minimizing it, keeping your desk clear of distractions, even turning your phone to airplane mode,” explains Gazzaley. “If you have an issue with texting and driving,” he adds, “put your phone in the trunk when you drive.”
Learn when to multitask
It’s important to know when is an appropriate time to multitask, and when isn’t explains Gazzaley. “If you’re doing something that requires a very high quality, something that represents you, something that has a time pressure on it — that’s not the time,” he says. In fact, while we often claim to be “multitasking,” the truth is we’re never actually performing two tasks simultaneously, says the professor. Instead, we’re rapidly switching from one task to another, which ultimately causes a performance reduction. So when can you multitask? “When you’re doing something where the impact is low and the quality demands are not so high,” says Gazzaley. “In that case, by all means, multitask away across your media because it’s a fun way to engage with technology.”
Give boredom a chance
It’s happened to all of us. You shut down all of your tabs and try to focus on one thing, and suddenly, you begin to feel unstimulated. “Part of my message is: It’s OK to be bored,” says Gazzaley. “We have to learn to accept a little bit of boredom, get used to it, and learn that with sustained attention you can push through and find another type of satisfaction on the other end.” More important, these moments of boredom are actually beneficial and can give way to creativity and reflection, explains Gazzaley. So next time, try to not automatically pull your phone out while waiting on line, and instead allow yourself to contemplate some ideas. “There’s a lot of value that we could be missing in these moments,” Gazzaley says.