When new people come to my apartment there’s usually a point in the visit where they stop and ask, “wait, how many screens do you have?” That’s when it’s time to play Guess How Many Screens Adam Has. We play by the Price is Right rules and everyone is always afraid of guessing too high. They never do. There are always more they haven’t considered. Aside from being pretty ridiculous, being surrounded by so much technology poses a problem. How do you stay focused when there are so many things that are designed for you to interact with them?
Most of us aren’t going to choose extreme tech minimalism and toss our heap of electronics. Instead, let’s first take a look at why tech burnout, addiction, and other tech-plus-human issues occur. Then we’ll figure out how to avoid the problem altogether.
Developing an Addiction
It isn’t news that studies are finding that video games trigger dopamine releases in the brain. While Dopamine has a few uses, the one that matters here is how it acts as a reward system for certain things we do. For example, dopamine is released when we eat and have sex because the body considers those things to be necessary to our survival as a species. Certain types of video games have managed to pull the dopamine trigger as well. What else can do it? Pretty much anything we find stimulating. Nicotine causes dopamine release. So does Caffeine (in a somewhat indirect way).
Like video games, we can develop a dopamine release from many kinds of addictive behavior. Checking email is one in particular. You may not like spending long amounts of time in your inbox, but you probably think about checking it pretty often. When you hear that ding (or vibrate), you know there’s something waiting for you. To make things worse, because you do not receive email at set intervals and you don’t know if that email is going to be something you want, your curiosity is piqued the moment the ding occurs just so you can find out if you’ve received something you want or if it’s a waste of your time.
Back when we were tethered to desktop computers, this wasn’t such a problem. First of all, technology had yet to proliferate in society at the enormous level it has nowadays, but more importantly we didn’t have little computers that we could stick in our pockets. Previously we might check out email at a few convenient intervals during the day. Now these tiny little multitaskers are requesting our attention wherever we go. We have many more opportunities to interact with information and so we run into two more dilemmas: filtering an information overload and using our technology appropriately.
Filtering Information Overload
We consume three times the information now as we did 50 years ago, but the problem of information overload isn’t new. Thanks to the Gutenberg press, by the year 1500 there were more books available than the average literate citizen could ever read in their lifetime. We’ve had a ridiculous amount of information available to us for a long, long time and it keeps growing. We keep looking at the growth, and the increasing rate of growth, like it’s a new epidemic. In reality, we’re allowing information overload to happen to us. As Clay Shirky points out, the problem has more to do with filter failure:
As Shirky illustrates, the filters we’ve been using prior to the Internet are now breaking as they don’t apply to the massive amounts of information we encounter online. Because information overload isn’t a new problem—and maybe isn’t even a problem at all—we need to find new ways of filtering in order to actually focus.
Information isn’t the only thing we need to filter—our behavior can often be an issue when we pull out the laptop or smartphone. The last decade has bombarded us with new devices and there aren’t too many rules to suggest when we should and shouldn’t use them. You’d think that texting while driving would be an obvious behavior to avoid, but it seems that a lot of us do it anyway.
If you’re spending time with another person, etiquette has always dictated that you give them your attention. Nonetheless, there’s still a lot of debate over whether or not it’s appropriate to, say, check email over dinner. It’s not okay to talk in a movie theater, but is it okay to shine your glowing screen in the eyes of other moviegoers? Is there a reasonable solution? The trend seems to be heading toward giving first priority to our devices, and this isn’t just a social problem but a problem that works hand-in-hand with the dopamine triggers you develop from frequent use.
Tech etiquette isn’t just important when dealing with other people around you; it’s also important because it serves as a means of limiting and governing your use. We do not need to respond to every message immediately at any time during the day, but our new brand of etiquette has given us a social obligation to text or email back as soon as humanly possible. If real life gets in the way, we cover it up with our phones. Neglecting to prioritize the real over the digital is only making matters worse.
So what do we do about it? Overcoming a tech addiction and avoiding burnout requires work. There aren’t any magic tricks that’ll pave the road to freedom, but here are some ideas to get you started.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
It might seem great to have a device that can do just about anything, but becoming reliant on a single device has its own set of problems. Consider this scenario: you take out your phone to check what time it is. You figure since your phone is already out of your pocket, you should check your email. You end up spending a few minutes debating whether or not to reply to an email now or save it for later. It can go on and on from there, making what should be a pretty quick operation (checking the time) into a series of tasks you don’t necessarily need to do. It’s cases like these where it’s not always best to rely on a single device. It’s convenient, however, and so the ideal situation would be if you could train yourself to stay on task when pulling the phone from your pocket.
More realistically, however, is training yourself to just keep the phone in your pocket more often. Find other ways to check the time. Decide to check your email a little less. If it gets problematic, don’t take the phone with you or turn it off when you go out at night. Technology exists to make things easier, but if you’re making your life more difficult by interacting with your devices too, often it ends up being more of a problem. Figure out ways you can avoid using your technology for everything and you’ll become accustomed to using it less.
At this point it shouldn’t be surprising that multitasking is really just a myth. While we can act like we’re doing several things at once, we’re really just quickly shifting our attention between different activities. Listening to music while you run or watching television while you sort your mail are the sorts of tasks you can combine without a problem, but when more technology comes into the mix we can’t necessarily live by those rules.
Maybe you’ve tried to get through your email inbox while watching television. If you have, you’ve probably noticed the difficulty in concentrating on both. If the television is on for some added noise, you probably don’t have too many problems. If you were hoping to watch a show you enjoy while getting some work done, you probably found yourself pausing—frequently—during your work. Fortunately the technology in our time allows us to save TV for later and interact with the majority of our entertainment whenever we want. A feeling of immediacy encourages us to think that everything has to happen right now, but that’s not the case. In general you will be more productive by doing one thing at a time.
While doing anything while trying to pay attention to something else can be problematic, introducing tech can end up making matters worse because it increases the unfocused time you spend with your devices. This overlap creates a behavioral pattern of pulling out your technology whenever you feel like it. In doing so, you neglect the fragmentation it causes in your ability to focus on the one thing you really ought to be doing. Bring this into a social context and we have the tech etiquette issues previously discussed. If you want to form good habits with your technology, consider interacting with one device at a time to avoid multitasking and the poor prioritization of digital interaction over real interaction.
Maybe you’ve said something like this before: “Hey so and so. Sorry I didn’t answer the phone/your text. I get bad reception at the gym.” In that scenario, you’d have not only apologized for being unavailable during exercise but for your phone’s inability to get you the message immediately. At some point we’ve probably all apologized for missing a call/text/email even when we’ve responded in a short amount of time. If this is a frequent action for you, you’re a slave to immediacy.
Stop apologizing and welcome the freedom of responding when you can and when you feel like it. If you create the expectation that you’re not always going to respond at the precise moment of the call/email/text, people will begin to assume that you’ll respond when you can. You don’t want to neglect your friends, family, and coworkers by not responding for long periods of time, but you do want to let everyone know that you respond on your time. Breaking free of these social obligations will help you feel fewer obligations to constantly check for messages.
One effective way of dealing with information overload is actually organizing information. This may be an obvious one, but most of us think more about organization than actually doing it. You’re going to get organized at some point, so you might as well start now (if you haven’t, that is). Email is one of the toughest things to get under control and there are more solutions out there than you could ever really try.
Google’s new Priority Inbox is a great new way to focus on the important messages in your inbox. A Chrome and Firefox extension called Boomerang lets you schedule when you send and receive emails. Communicating through speed appropriate channels rather than funneling everything through email can help, too. You can even offload distractions to an iPad, or another device you have, so you can focus on specific things on specific devices. However you organize your information, just be sure to evolve your system to fit changes in the way your information flows.