Workplace productivity dropped over the last three quarters, and some economists blame social media and a lack of innovative tech solutions. But Adam Gazzaley, professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, believes it's simply because our brains aren't built for multitasking, which our world of technology so often demands.
In his book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, published in September, Gazzaley explains why our devices might be hurting our concentration at work.
"The story for me is really one of strengths and weaknesses in the brain," said Gazzaley. Humans have an "incredible ability" to create complex goals, he said. To enact them, we use a set of functions called cognitive control, that includes attention, focusing mental resources when and where we want them, holding information over time, and managing multiple goals.
"But these abilities have fundamental limitations," Gazzaley said. "In many ways we are not different from animals—that's why we call them ancient brains. We have a conflict between what we want to do, and what we're capable of doing at a high level. This creates interference, the cornerstone of the distracted mind."
The consequences are seen in different ways, including workplace productivity.
A high degree of multitasking and moving between devices does not allow for the sustained, focused attention that a lot of work demands, Gazzaley said. Neuroscience research shows that when you engage in two tasks simultaneously, your brain does not parallel process them—instead, it switches between different networks responsible for them.
"There is a cost—a time delay and degradation of information with each switch," Gazzaley said. For example, imagine writing an email and talking on a conference call at the same time. "You just know you can't do it—you would feel uncomfortable pressing 'send' without reading the email after, and you might have to ask 'What did you say?' while on the call," he said. "You can't parallel process those things at the highest levels."
Technology did not create this conflict between goal setting and mental limitations, Gazzaley said—it has always been a part of how our brains evolved, but we've aggravated it with unprecedented exposure and access to information.
"Tech is wonderful, and what it has offered us will only continue to be more and more beneficial to our lives, but it doesn't come without a cost," Gazzaley said. "Everything has a balance."
People need to address the following three factors to change their behavior and live more effectively and productively with technology. "The goal is not to get rid of technology, but to manage it better," Gazzaley said.
"It's not just that our tech is everywhere, which it is—we have a million ways to multitask," Gazzaley said. "But our tech pings us when it wants our attention—it doesn't require us to contact it, we get a vibration or message alert."
The first step is deciding when we want to embrace that accessibility, and when we want to limit it, Gazzaley said.
If you want to complete a high-level, time-sensitive task, the way to accomplish it is through sustained, focused attention, Gazzaley said. That might mean logging out of your email, putting your phone on airplane mode, and removing other technological distractions so you can focus on your one task.
"It is really challenging the first time you try this," Gazzaley said. "We are in a cognitive style where every two or three minutes this internal urge to switch to something new presents itself."
As you diminish the accessibility of the tech around you, boredom often sets in, Gazzaley said. "It's okay to be bored," he said. "We've adopted this stance that we never allow ourselves to experience this state, and if we feel it we try to change to something more rewarding. But then you give up the quiet, thoughtful times where creativity can be sparked."
Working through the feeling of boredom and sustaining something over a period of time can be a positive experience, he said. But you don't want to overdo it. Part of managing boredom is creating break periods, which might be every 10 minutes at the beginning, Gazzaley said. What you do in your break period is important: Exposure to nature, mindfulness exercises, and physical exercises can be restorative and help you get back to work.
"The best break is not going on Facebook," Gazzaley said. "It will create a recursive cycle of interruption that will take you further away."
Anxiety "peaks rapidly in many people" in the absence of technology, especially smartphones, Gazzaley said.
This is another challenge that can be worked through, with breaks. It also helps to curb the expectations others have of you. "Accessibility creates a lot of anxiety in feeling like there are other things going on that are important that you should be engaging in," Gazzaley said. You need to be able to say, "Between 5 and 6 pm I'm driving, so don't text me then," or "11-2 at work is my deep time, so please don't ask me any questions then."
"It decreases the anxiety that you're missing out," Gazzaley said.
Workplace productivity is also about expectations, Gazzaley said. As a manager, you can create an environment in which wearing headphones or hanging a sign on your desk signals that an employee is focusing, and in which emails are only intended to be answered during business hours. "Just because we have the ability to access other people and information all the time doesn't mean we have to live like that," Gazzaley said.
"We have to think about our tech and what it could be doing to detract from quality of life, from productivity at work to how well we sleep," Gazzaley said. "We will get more out of tech if we recognize how it challenges us."
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Alison DeNisco Rayome has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.