Learning how to focus is not rocket science. It’s brain science.
Three recent articles, two in the New York Times one entitled, “The Anxiety of the Unanswered E-Mail” (April 19, 2013) and the other entitled, “When E-Mail Turns from Delight to Deluge” (February 9, 2013) and one in Time magazine entitled, “Don’t Multitask: Your Brain Will Thank You” (April 17, 2013) tackled a recurring theme among professionals: How do I deal with the volume of e-mail messages that I receive each and every day?
Dr. Larry Rosen is Past Chair and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is a research psychologist with specialties in generational differences, parenting, child and adolescent development, business psychology, and is recognized as an international expert in the “Psychology of Technology.”
Editor: Muhammad Talha
Jenna Wortham mulled over the issue of what to do when your inbox continues to grow and you can’t even fathom dealing with thousands of unread e-mails while Alina Tugend struggled with what it means when you either choose not to respond or simply don’t have the time, energy or inclination to respond to e-mail messages that may be meaningful on a personal or professional level. Most of us are feeling so tethered to our e-mail that we gleefully allow it to taunt us from all of our devices including our computers, tablets and smartphones. Alerts and notifications attack our senses beeping, flashing and even playing a favorite song. We are being summoned to something so important that we need to be notified of its presence lest we miss its arrival and seeming need for immediate attention.
The reason that I included the Time article is that, for most people, there simply isn’t an available block of time to tackle the overload and so most choose to deal with their e-mail on a piecemeal basis when a moment of “slack time” presents itself. The problem is that by the time the next few precious seconds or even minutes of slack time present themselves, we have likely received many additional e-mails and find that there is not even enough time to tackle those, let alone older ones from just a day (or even an hour) ago.
If you are like most professionals you are always on e-mail whether it is a permanent resident on your laptop or whether you see the large white numbers on a red background on your iPhone (or the equivalent on whatever smartphone you tote around with you 24/7/365). On your laptop most likely you have some form of arriving e-mail notification. My Outlook is set to play a tone and pop up a notification in the right corner of my screen. The rational part of me says “TURN NOTIFICATIONS OFF” while the specialized part of my prefrontal cortex that handles multitasking keeps telling me that it is quite capable of ignoring the pop-up and chime and helping me stay focused and on task.
Simply put, my PFC lies to me and always has lied to me. It can’t handle interruptions very well at all but it refuses to direct me to turn off the notifications and alerts and pay attention to what I am supposed to be doing, either writing my new book, putting together statistics for a journal article or simply reading to prepare for a classroom lecture, a speaking engagement or a journal article submission.
What is my problem? Like most people I believe that I can multitask, or rather task switch, at next to no cost. I am not delusional. I know that each time my attention is yanked away from what I am doing and then returns moments or even hours later it takes me (and my prefrontal cortex) time to remember what I was doing and where I was in the process. Laura Bowman, Laura Levine and their psychology colleagues at Central Connecticut State University, convinced me that when people try to multitask they may complete all tasks with the same high level of accuracy but to do so takes extra time and Gloria Mark and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine added the admonition that the constant multitasking adds a layer of stress caused by needing to do everything a bit faster simply to keep up with your obligations.
Yet as I gaze at my laptop I see five Safari browsers with 22 windows, plus my Outlook e-mail inbox plus three pdfs that I am supposed to read for a meeting plus two Word documents plus SPSS with a dataset and a handful of multivariate analyses plus … uh oh, I just noticed that while I was writing I got a text message from my older daughter on my iPhone which itself has many apps that I use on a daily basis on the front screen including CNN, ESPN, Zite, Facebook, Woot and, of course, the app store in case I read something about a new app that I must try. Just observing what I have in my plain sight within a few inches of my weary eyes makes me exhausted.
The Time article tells me that I must not multitask because my brain doesn’t like it. Well, it is my brain that is making me switch from task to task to task from the moment I awaken until the moment I turn off my phone about an hour before I plan to retire. [Parenthetically, I used to keep the phone next to my bed but when I would awaken I felt compelled to check it, which would then necessitate either a quick e-mail response to someone or would engage my brain and ruin the rest of my night’s sleep.] Gloria Mark tells me, in the Time article, that I should learn from her study where she cut 13 employees off from e-mail for five days and reduced their stress. Just thinking about this threatens to send my blood pressure sky high. Five days means I would have a stack of at least 2,000 unaddressed e-mail messages and that’s not what I, or my brain, want to do. In contrast, Cliff Nass, a Stanford University professor, tells me that his study showed that multitasking is bad for me and I should learn to use the “20-minute rule” where I dedicate 20-minute blocks of time working on a single task before allowing myself to switch (to e-mail). This seems vastly more attainable.
What is the solution? My view is close to that of Cliff Nass in that I believe we need to retrain our brains to focus and attend for increasing periods of time. When I speak to audiences, whether they are students, teachers, parents or business people, I introduce the concept of “tech breaks” to help in that retraining process.
A tech break is similar to what Nass recommends with a wrinkle. It’s easiest to illustrate with an example. Back in January 2012, I spoke at the American School of Bombay at their Unplugged 2011 conference, which included teachers and administrators from international schools who were dealing with the issues surrounding the use of technology in the classroom. During the few days that I was in Mumbai I spoke to the conference plus the parents of the ASB students. We stayed at the Sofitel Hotel across the street and when I came back to speak at Unplugged 2013 earlier this year the general manager of the hotel corralled me at check-in to tell me how he had heard me talk about tech breaks in the context of family dinners and decided to use them during his staff meetings. He prefaced this by saying that while he was a Baby Boomer, most of his staff were in their 20s and 30s and were constantly checking their smartphones during meetings and he was not happy about their lack of attention.
He remembered my introduction of tech breaks to the parents at ASB – where his children attend school – and decided to try them during his meetings. As I suggested to the parents, he started by asking his staff to check their phones for a minute and then turn their phones on silent and place them upside down on the table which for most was quite a surprise as they were hiding them in their laps. The upside down phone, he said, was to be a reminder that in a short time he would give them a tech break and they could check in for another minute. He continued this way for the whole meeting and for several weeks did the 1 minute/15 minute cycle. Then, as I encouraged the parents, he increased it to 20 minutes and after another week or two to 30 minutes as I had encouraged parents to try in their homes (and teachers in their classrooms). He was proud to tell me that for a one-hour meeting he had them checking for one minute in the beginning and one minute in the middle and one minute at the end and that it was a roaring success.
This is the power of tech breaks: They teach you how to delay your need to constantly check in and to learn to focus for periods of time without the clarion call of the smartphone. I have recommended tech breaks to classroom teachers in 1:1 programs, young adults during restaurant dinners, parents at the family dinner table and business managers during meetings and I have yet to hear of a failure. What I do hear is glowing reports of renewed attention leading to more productivity.