We like to think our high-tech tools are helping us get more done faster, thanks to our 24/7 access to information and other people. And, yes, technology has considerable upsides: Staying in touch with far-flung loved ones is easier than ever, and “there’s tremendous efficiency when it comes to work, like exchanging information and collaborating,” says Gary Small, MD, a neuroscientist at UCLA and co-author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.
But for many of us, a little too much of this good thing is actually causing a neurological phenomenon that psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, MD, author of Driven to Distraction, has called “attention deficit trait,” marked by distractibility and impatience. “We’re constantly scanning the environment for a new ring or buzz,” Dr. Small says. “And there’s something irresistible about an unopened message,” Dr. Hallowell adds. “We want to keep opening them even though we know that we’re distracting ourselves, taking ourselves out of the moment, the conversation.”
That’s because our brains crave newness and reward us with a feel-good squirt of the neurotransmitter dopamine every time our phone pings with a text or emails show up in our inbox. In a soon-to-be- published study from the University of Chicago, researchers found that people have a harder time resisting the tug of gadgets than any other desire, including the urge to eat, sleep, shop, and have sex.
As a result, instead of helping us multitask better, our phones, computers, texts, emails, and apps may keep us from accomplishing as much as we want to. “What people mean by multitasking is switching their attention back and forth from one task to the next,” Dr. Hallowell explains. “And every time you do that, each task loses a little bit of your attention.”
But you can organize your gadget usage so you’re not overwhelmed by the never-ending emails and those incessant pings from your BlackBerry. Here are smart strategies for making your tech work in ways that keep your brain focused—and even more efficient.
Sidestep the time-suck
Need to get some work done, but finding it hard to resist the lure of Facebook? So-called “productivity tools” can stop you from surfing when you can’t stop yourself. LeechBlock, a free add-on for Firefox, lets you block sites of your choosing during certain times of the day or after you’ve already wasted a set amount of time on them; Freedom, a $10 download for PC and Mac users, blocks your Internet access for up to eight hours. Even simpler: Set a timer for 25 minutes of focused work. When it goes off, you get five minutes to check Twitter or your favorite blog.