Attention Black Holes of the Wandering Mind

I discovered a disturbing habit of mine this week as I read Chris Bailey’s book “The Productivity Project”.

After I woke up, I would immediately reach for my phone and then mindlessly bounce around my favorite apps in a simulation-fueled feedback loop for about thirty minutes, continuously hopping between Twitter, email, Facebook, Instagram, and several news websites until I snapped out of my trance.

I was initially concerned about the frequency of my app-hopping because it was not a one-off activity but continuously through the day — as I sat in meetings, waited between meetings, ate, walked and even before sleep. What truly disturbed me was how much words like “mindless”, “simulation”, “trance” fitted the analogy of a drug addict. Turns out someone made such a connection here.

Bombast aside, I must admit to a mild-to-moderate internet addiction. Since I started my self-imposed work sabbatical last November, I have been conscious of how I spend my time. It is so easy to lapse into an unproductive cycle of never-ending reading, messaging or gaming. One key learning I gleaned is that time management is an Industrial Age concept. Instead, we should be focused on managing our minds in the Digital Age.

Since interruptions are so prevalent with digital technologies, I believe that attention, not time, is the more precious resource.

Like slot machines, email and social media provide what psychologists call “variable ratio reinforcement”. A big part of the fun and engagement was totally not knowing when the “pleasurable hit” would come. Hence, this explains why many of us compulsively check email after email or why the infinite scroll, as seen on Facebook, Twitter is so pervasive across the web. Email and social media successfully harness our mind’s thrill-seeking nature to become effective attention hogs.

There is nothing wrong with attention hogs but we have to be careful of when they consume our mental capacities.

When I did any app-hopping, I assumed I was “resting” but my post-hop feelings were anything but. I felt guilty that I wasted time and I definitely didn’t feel rested at all (YMMV). How could I when I was basically feeding my brain a firehose of useless, mind-numbing information? The neuroscience research is very clear that sleep is essential for work productivity. Like sleep, short breaks at work also have a real benefit on improving memory, energy and work productivity.

When we do app-hopping between intense work periods, productive break time becomes the opportunity cost of app-hopping.

Walking, napping, talking to humans in person and even daydreaming are popular suggestions for productive breaks. Daydreaming, in particular, is interesting. It turns out that the default state of our mind is not one of laser-sharp focus and attention (as many bosses would love). Our mind wanders, a lot. If we believe that many creative moments in history happened in the shower or bath room, then scrolling Facebook with a tired mind in your break time robs your brain of precious wandering, creative time.

That is a delicious hypothesis I can’t wait to test. ;)