Quick Google searches, scans of online content, tweets and texts: The technology that gives us easy access to information can also damage our ability to think.
Studies show we are losing our ability to (1) concentrate on lengthy tasks, (2) focus on other people, and (3) think deeply to solve problems.
But you can reboot your brain. The key is new habits that let technology work with your brain, not against it.
Tip #1. Multi-tasking is a myth.
If you are proud of your ability to do several things at once, you’re fooling yourself—but you’re probably not fooling those around you. Multi-tasking is simply impossible; the brain doesn’t work that way.
Our brains can’t concentrate on a phone conversation and scroll through emails at the same time (or text and drive or … choose your favorite multi-tasks). Instead, our brains are switching quickly back and forth between tasks. While some of us have faster switching systems than others, it’s not the best way to use a brain.
As the flow of information hitting us every day speeds up, cognitive scientists wondered whether our brains would morph and become better able to handle switching quickly. The answer? A resounding No! In fact, research shows that the more screen time, the more quick cuts from one focus to another, the worse we get at concentrating and creating.
Nothing in our new technology has changed our basic brain function. If we’re interrupted by a colleague while we’re writing a quick email, it takes about fifteen minutes to get back on task. If we’re interrupted by a difficult phone call while we’re working on a complex report, it can take an hour to recover our concentration. In general, according to developmental molecular biologist John Medina in his book Brain Rules, “a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.”
And switching tasks burns up the brain’s energy stores, leaving us fatigued and fuzzy-headed.
The solution to better using your brain? The old adage had it right: One thing at a time and that done well.
Set aside blocks of time during your best part of the day for tasks that require deep thinking and concentration.
Close your door when you need to focus; you’ll work faster.
Answer emails or phone calls in dedicated blocks of time rather than whenever they pop up. Colleagues will adapt to not hearing from you immediately.
Tip #2: Off-load your brain.
Our brain’s capacity for conscious thought has limited band-width. We can only hold a limited number of thoughts at a time. Trying to remember to pick up milk on the way home takes up brain space you could use to figure out a response to a customer query. Both are important.
But you can off-load “get milk” to external storage—also known as a list. A simple list works as your brain’s external hard-drive, saving both space and energy in your brain for more important tasks.
In The Organized Mind (a brilliant guide for applying brain science to individual productivity), Daniel J. Levitin, says “The goal is to get projects and situations off your mind but not to lose any potentially useful ideas—externalizing your frontal lobes. Then you can step back and look at your list from an observer standpoint and not let yourself be driven by what’s the latest and loudest in your head.”
Levitin suggests keeping your list on small index cards, one item per card.
The simple act of jotting it on a card means your brain doesn’t have it scurrying around, trying to be remembered.
Reduced stress is an added benefit of a small stack of cards in front of you (perhaps seven or ten items per day) instead of your entire to-do list. Rather than scanning a list of things that you can’t (and don’t need to) complete today, you’re only focused on key items for today or tomorrow.
You can organize the longer-term cards according to topic and file them in a card box or in a stack on your desk.
In preparing your daily and weekly schedule, review your cards and pull the ones that have to be done. Pull some extras, in case you have unexpected time.
The results are amazing. For me (a life-long list addict), this is one of the simplest systems I’ve ever used. I don’t forget things, but I’m also calmer and more focused. It works with my brain instead of fighting against it.
Tip #3. Know when to take a break.
A walk around the block or strolling over to gaze out the window isn’t goofing off. Think of it as strategic downtime – and the source of many powerful “a-ha” moments.
A-ha moments don’t just arrive effortlessly. Though they may seem like bright flashes of brilliance that come from nowhere, they are actually the synthesis of longer-term mental focus on a problem. You can’t get the magic without the groundwork of research, study, brainstorming, and analysis.
But the magic often materializes when you take a step away and let your brain work. A long soak in a hot bath, lunch with a friend, running up and down flights of stairs, meditation, listening to music, coloring, or a simple walk – try whatever you enjoy, whatever gives your conscious brain a break from the work.
The preparatory work, followed by the step back, seems to be the key to flashes of brain magic.
Tip #4. Dig deep.
In general, we’re losing our ability to concentrate and to think deeply. We’re also losing our empathy for others, our ability to relate to their emotions—a key component of emotional intelligence or EQ, a foundational leadership strength.
One way to recover those skills is amazingly simple: read a book. Research shows that reading literary fiction (defined as complex, character-driven, and introspective rather than plot-driven genre fiction) can change the brain’s response to other people.
We use fiction as a rehearsal for real life. We play the roles, we experience the emotion, we test ourselves against conflict or trials we may not have (yet) experienced in our lives. [See Lisa Cron’s Story Genius]. In those fictional rehearsals, we train our brains how to respond.
Art provides another path to reawakening empathy. A study of physicians and their exposure to arts (whether just observing art or creating it for themselves) showed changes in their ability to relate to others’ emotions and, also important, in their likelihood to burn out in their demanding jobs.
So reading a book that requires concentration, studying a painting in a gallery for the story or emotion it conveys, or creating art (even as a amateur) feeds the brain and enriches its responses.
Tip #5. Eat, sleep, move.
These final tips are easy. You already know what you need to maintain good health. But did you know these are critically important not just to your body, but to your brain?
Eat. The brain uses as much as 20% of the body’s energy supply, more than any other organ. The brain needs good fats (like fish and olive oil) and fewer saturated fats and sugar. A healthy diet means a healthy brain.
Sleep. The brain also needs sleep. Developmental molecular biologist John Medina [see his informative videos] says, “The bottom line is that sleep loss means mind loss.” Though we don’t fully understand all that happens during sleep, the brain does need that time for regeneration and reorganization.