Like I do every year before Christmas, I am republishing the article from my blog that attracted the highest readership in 2019: Nowadays, our lives are marked by constant interruptions – e-mails, messages, calls, being disturbed by colleagues, etc. This is not without consequences: According to a Microsoft study, our attention span is now only nine seconds, one second less than that of goldfish! This in turn leads to more errors, lower productivity and poorer memory. This has prompted Cal Newport, a US professor of computer science, to declare: “Focus is the new intelligence quotient.”
Digitization brings with it many benefits: It saves time, makes everyday life easier and interconnects people, to name just a few examples. At the same time, there are constant sources of distraction that tempt us away from what we should be doing and mean that we can’t concentrate on anything. This has absurd effects, as studies have shown (I am only mentioning the most extreme examples):
- On average, we interrupt our work every 11 minutes, with around 50% of interruptions being caused by ourselves.
- 52% of all 18 to 24-year-olds look at their smartphones at least once every 30 minutes. Another study suggests that we touch our smartphones over 2,500 times a day.
- Four out of five Germans take their smartphone with them when they go to the bathroom; 50% of them do so out of boredom.
- Only 19% of all Austrians state that they could potentially live without their mobile phone for a week or longer – but more than half say they could go without sex.
- 42% would rather lose their sense of taste than their Internet access.
- 14 to 29-year-olds look at their smartphone on average three minutes after getting up.
- Every second person suffers from an imaginary vibration alarm.
- 22% admit to having run into something while texting.
Our monkey mind
The consequences are dramatic: During as much as 50% of our waking hours, our minds wander and lead us everywhere but where we want to be. This is known as ‘monkey mind’ in Buddhism. It means that we become unsettled and often fail to finish things because we allow ourselves to be distracted by something else. We become inefficient and our productivity decreases, since it takes several minutes (up to 20 minutes according to some studies) to concentrate again on what we were doing before we were distracted. And the more we do this, the weaker our concentration becomes and the less creative we are. The brain adapts – in a negative sense. And we become dissatisfied because we never get back into the flow that develops when you remain focused on something.
As a woman, even I have to admit that multitasking is counterproductive – in fact, there is really no such thing. That is because our brains cannot think two things at the same time. And they can’t work in both the alphabetical and numerical systems at the same time. This means we should do “one thing after another” instead of “everything at the same time”. If you try to listen to a person speaking in a meeting and check and even respond to e-mails at the same time, you will not really notice what is being said and how it is being said – but equally, you will not properly notice what is written in your e-mail. It is a proven fact that if you try to multitask, you will be slower and make more mistakes. So forget it!
The role of dopamine and cortisol
Why are we so dependent on all things digital and why do we allow ourselves to be constantly distracted by them? This answer is: It is linked to the way our brains and hormones function. When we see a message or one of our posts is liked on a social media channel, dopamine – the happiness hormone – is released. The problem with dopamine is that we need more and more of it to feel good. That makes us dependent on it. Many people are today so addicted to their digital devices that the stress hormone cortisol is released as soon as they put the mobile phones away. We are worried that we might miss something…
Many apps are programmed to get you hooked. They contain a reward system if we use them often. The result is that we become over-excited, exhausted and, over time, more and more stressed. Did you know that Bill Gates only allowed his three children to have a smartphone at the age of 14? That says it all.
Anitra Eggler, a former Internet pioneer and digital therapist, sums up the situation as follows: “Reflex instead of reflection is the motto of homo digitalis”. In her book on this topic she speaks very pointedly about the consequences of digital overload and also offers some valuable advice. Here are the tips I find most valuable (from her book and other sources):
- Ban your mobile phone from the bedroom, dining table (at home and in restaurants) and the desk in your office. Create mobile phone free zones at home and buy an analog alarm clock.
- E-mail opening times (as Eggler calls them): Open your mailbox only three times a day and then concentrate on processing your e-mails.
- If you can’t do this, then put your mobile and your computer on silent and eliminate all notifications. Studies have shown that you can’t avoid looking for any more than two minutes once you realize that a message has arrived.
- Look out of the window when traveling by train instead at your mobile phone.
- Opt for a digital detox – either over shorter periods (one day at the weekend) or over a longer time (holidays).
- Do something with your hands, such as crafts, gardening or something similar.
- Try to be mindful time and again. This sounds esoteric but it is not. It is about living for the moment and experiencing it without analyzing it. For example, brush your teeth and don’t think about anything else but simply concentrating on what the toothpaste tastes like or what the pressure of the toothbrush feels like on your teeth. Or if you have to wait somewhere, simply watch what is going on. Meditation is the best known mindfulness exercise. Others can be found e.g. at:
https://www.zeitblueten.com/news/fb1-achtsam-werden-ritual-uebungen/ (German only).
Concentration works like a muscle: You can build it up. So why not start today? After all, the ability to focus is not simply a ‘nice to have’ – it is essential for performance, success and satisfaction. Or as Cal Newport puts it: “Focus is the new intelligence quotient”.
© Claudia Kraaz