How much time do you spend each day responding to email, checking Facebook, sending and reading Tweets, aimlessly surfing your favourite websites and buying things you don't need? How much time, in other words, do you spend doing stuff online that doesn't add much value in your life, or in anyone else's? Too much, I'm going to guess.
Image remixed from Mike Elliot.
I let it happen to me when I woke up Sunday morning, got on my laptop and started reading the New York Times. 90 minutes later, I was still surfing from one bookmarked website to the next, vaguely aware that there were other things I wanted to do and that none of what I was taking in was very nourishing. And yet I remained narcotically glued to that screen — a baby bird with its mouth open, forever eager to be fed.
"There are few things ever dreamed of, smoked or injected that have as addictive an effect on our brains as technology," writes Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal in her terrific book The Willpower Instinct.
"The definitive Internet act of our times is a perfect metaphor for the promise of reward," she adds. "We search. And we search. And we search some more...clicking that mouse...looking for the elusive reward that will finally feel like enough."
Or, as Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon put it way back in 1978: "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." And retention. Taking in endless bits and bytes of information is akin to pouring water into a glass already full — in this case our severely limited working memory.
A growing body of research suggests that up to 95 per cent of our behaviours occur on automatic pilot, out of habit or in reaction to an external demand or stimulus. We spend a crazily disproportionate amount of time seeking the next source of instant gratification, rather than pursuing the more challenging goals that ultimately deliver more long-term value and greater satisfaction.
It's not about summoning the strength to say "no". Each time we intentionally forgo something desirable, we deplete our already limited reservoir of will and discipline. When was the last time you resisted the seductive ping of an incoming email?
So how, then, to withstand this Pavlovian pull? And how, in turn, to take back control of your attention, so you can put it to better and richer use?
A few suggestions:
1. Lead yourself not into temptation. Instead, consciously choose times to turn off your technology entirely. The best time of all is at the start of your day, when you've typically got the most energy. Specifically, that's the best time to take on your most important and challenging tasks, without interruption, for anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes.
2. Carry a notebook with you throughout your workday. Download any ideas that come to you as quickly as possible — not just to ensure you'll remember them, but also to clear space in your working memory for whatever comes at you next. Alternatively, type the ideas into a memo pad on your smart phone.
3. Between meetings and obligations, take some time to breathe deeply — in through your nose to a count of three, out through your mouth to a count of six. In as little as one minute, you can completely clear your bloodstream of the stress hormone cortisol. You'll feel calmer, and you'll be better able to focus.
4. Take a 15- to 20-minute nap between 1 and 4 p.m. — especially on days when you've not gotten sufficient sleep and you find yourself dragging. Even a very short nap can dramatically increase your alertness and your productivity over the subsequent several hours. (This assumes, of course, than you can get your boss on board. Make the case that it will improve your productivity.)
5. Designate and put in your calendar specific times each week to think reflectively, creatively, and/or strategically. Get up from your desk and take a walk outside, or find a comfortable, relaxing place to hang out. Leave your smart phone at your desk. The idea is to give the verbal left hemisphere of your brain a rest from its usual overload — and to rely instead during these periods on the more visual, imaginative right hemisphere of your brain. You'll know you're doing the right thing if you lose track of time.
Battling Your Online Addiction [Harvard Business Review]
Tony Schwartz is the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything. Become a fan of The Energy Project on Facebook and connect with Tony on @tonyschwartz and @energy_project.