Our ever-increasing reliance on technology is changing the way we think, feel, and act – and the effects are not always positive. While the pathways in the brain that we use frequently are strengthened to create habits, those that are used less weaken in the same way that muscle atrophies when not used. While technology offers many benefits, its misuse can alter our brain in ways that can diminish our productivity, motivation and happiness.
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Distractions have always existed (books, newspapers, children) – but the contemporary average distraction quotient is unprecedented. In researching this column, I discovered that we check our phones anywhere from 80 to over 150 times per day – every six to 12 minutes in an average 16-hour day. Each distraction breaks the flow of concentration and after each distraction, we must regain our focus, which makes it an inefficient waste of our precious mental resources. What’s more, with each distraction, we lose the opportunity to practise focus. And true to the adage ‘use it or lose it’, our capacity for sustained concentration diminishes while the brain learns to work in short bursts. In moments when focus is crucial (perhaps a report that must get to our boss today), we’re unable to stay focused and we can’t enter the coveted ‘flow’ state. Solution: Regain the skill of lengthy concentration, a few minutes at a time. Start with five minutes of uninterrupted activity, and gradually increase this by a few minutes each day up to 60 to 90 minutes (the natural ebb and flow of concentration seems to occur in 60- to 90-minute cycles).
Creativity isn’t just for artists; it’s a skill that’s crucial to decision making, problem solving and logical thinking. It’s often found in the ‘white spaces’ of life, in moments of idle daydream or boredom. Creative insights flash into our minds at the most unusual times, when our mind is relaxed – like in the shower, or just as we’re dozing off, or after a period of quiet contemplation.
With our rapidly increasing use of technology, we’re starting to lose these white spaces in the socially sanctioned custom of filling every moment with activity (did you check your email while you waited for your coffee order?) Yet just because we can be connected 24/7, does not mean we should. Solution: Schedule time to think, reflect and contemplate. Put away the devices, or set them to aeroplane mode. Creativity often strikes when engaging in routine tasks (e.g. having a cup of tea) or while fully engaged with our surroundings (e.g. patting the dog or walking along the beach). Practise the skill of creative thinking and it will become more powerful.
Technology affords us instant access and immediate gratification. Almost every thought can be fulfilled at a moment’s notice. Whether we’re curious about the weather in Finland or wondering what to have for dinner, we can find solutions immediately, without even having to glance at an encyclopedia or a recipe book. The problem? We become accustomed to immediate gratification, with very little investment of time and effort. Having to wait for anything feels intolerable. While this may seem harmless enough for trivia or ordering food, our desire for instant results can seep into all areas of our life, including those where immediate gratification is improbable. Losing weight, training for a marathon, writing a book, building a business – they all require consistent time and effort, and at first with seemingly little return. It takes self-control to pursue fulfilling goals, especially when they seem far away. Unfortunately, when we train our brain for instant pleasure, our patience becomes eroded. We give up on our goals prematurely and move on, seeking happiness through immediate gratification but feeling dissatisfied, disillusioned and unhappy. Solution: Self-control can only improve through practice. Start small and develop a tolerance for delayed gratification. When random thoughts interrupt our activity, resist the urge to fulfil them straight away. Make a note of them for when you take a break or finish the activity, and you just might find that these impulses aren’t so irresistible after all.