Taming a Distracted Mind
There is mounting evidence that digital devices, screens, smartphones are a real roadblock to productivity. The very tools that are supposed to make us more productive might be robbing us of that ability.
The Modern Worker
I’m a psychology professor at a large research institution. This means that although I spend some time teaching in a large lecture hall, mostly I’m in my office writing, reading, doing email, meetings, and planning…that is, spending my time like many other modern workers. I’ve been at this for a while and I can recall a time when not everyone had an email address, when research articles had to be printed, when submitting my work to a journal meant mailing four identical copies of the manuscript. But nearly all of that is now done on line. I sit at my desk to do email, to read, analyze data, access research papers, grade, comment …everything. And lately this has expanded to me writing and managing email at home, at breakfast on my phone, reading email in a faculty meeting on my phone, in bed on my phone…in the bathroom on my phone. Why am I doing my work in the bathroom?
What’s more, everything is being carried out on a device or a browser that is also used for recreation media consumption and social media. I read news, play games, and watch baseball games on my laptop. So my workstation is essentially also a playstation.
A Tired Mind
Lately I’m finding that a week of desk/computer work leaves my mind feeling like mush. Much more cognitive fatigue that there used to be. I’m less able to focus on my work. I can’t read the whole way through a paper. I’ll start and email and write two lines and then my attention wanders. It did not used to be this way, and it’s not just because I’m getting older (I’m 46). I think my work habits have begun to tire me out.
Meditation does help in this regard…I can meditate for 10–15 minutes with little difficulty. And running helps too: I can run for an hour without getting bored.
But the minute I’m at my desk I slide right back into the habit of having 10 browser tabs open…each one vying for my attention. It’s like no matter what I try, the second I sit down at my university office or home office to write, I lose my ability to concentrate at work. It starts with email, and then 10 minutes of local news, maybe twitter….some more email. And back and forth and them I’m still working on the same email.
So I’ve started taking steps this week to create some “digital distance” at work. Small habits to try to improve my work experience. None of this is scientific: I’m just trying to retrain. And I’m not so much interested in being more productive…just less tired.
- I’m printing more and screen reading less. This goes for articles, student work, and editing my own work. (don’t worry: I’m recycling the paper by printing on the back of other used paper!)
- This is big one: After many years of running everything through a browser and Gmail, I’m switching back to an actual email client (Spark for mac). That way, when I decide to do email, I’m ONLY doing email and not tempted to read FB, Twitter, news, etc. in another tab. Gmail or Outlook webmail was killing me for that because “hey you already have Chrome open, just leave a tab open for Facebook”. So Chrome is closed when I’m responding to email.
- My lab and my graduate students are now on Slack (not email) so that when I’m doing project management, research planning, and advising, I can concentrate on that and nothing else. I close Chrome and Outlook
- All notifications are off on the smart phone (except texts/calls from my wife & kids).
- No posting to social media in the morning, because I’ll just be thinking about whether not there are hits. This is another big one. I’ll post something at breakfast or comment and then keep checking. My students and I are even carrying out a research study on this specific topic (more detail on that later..when the data are in)
I’m curious if others are finding similar things. Do you think that your productivity has waned? Do you think that working all day on a screen is reducing your ability to concentrate? Have you take steps to correct this or retrain your mind? I’d be interested in hearing