The Internet is a rabbit hole of distraction. It’s easy to wind up knee-deep in paparazzi photos of Beyoncé’s new baby when you intended only to answer a few emails.
But last week, I had a different experience. Stressed out, on a deadline, I was frustrated to the point of uselessness and began to post a handful of items to Twitter and Tumblr. For a while, my mind and fingers wandered aimlessly around the Web. When I grew tired of this, I turned back to my assignment, completed it and turned it in. The entire detour took less than 10 minutes, and it seemed to make me more efficient.
Of course, the standard party line is that our focus and attention span are being whittled away by the never-ending barrage of services flooding our screens and feeds — and that this is a debilitating trend.
John Herrman, an editor at FWD, a tech site on BuzzFeed, says he’s developed a kind of tech neurosis from the frenetic race to keep up with emails, mobile emails, Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging, phone calls and text messages throughout the day.
“I, like so many people I know who work on computers, seem very inefficient,” he wrote in a recent post. “Even if my output is high, my input is astronomically higher. I’m never not looking sideways at what I’m doing, never not pulled to look at something else, never not reacting to whatever I’ve paused on.”
Most days, that’s my experience, too — but not always. In fact, sometimes I’ve found that losing myself in the Web can be invigorating. Instead of needing to turn off the noise of the Web, I often use it to calm my nerves so I can finish my work.
It seems that instead of fracturing my focus and splintering my attention span, digital distractions have become a part of my work flow, part of the process, along with organizing notes and creating an outline for each article I write. Perhaps it’s possible to master the demands on my attention by figuring out a way to juggle the multitude of apps and services that beg to be looked at, clicked on and answered.
Brain on the superhighway
If my brain is learning how to cope with distractions, is it possible that others are, too?
Of course, the consensus among scientists and researchers is that trying to juggle many tasks fractures our thinking and degrades the quality of each action. But understanding the plasticity of the brain, or its ability to adapt and reorganize its pathways, is still in its early stages.
Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies the impact of interruption on performance and memory, says it’s possible that our brains are adapting to handle the many inputs of digital stimulation. He and his research team are using interactive video games to observe how the brain adapts to multiple tasks that increase in difficulty over time.
“We can train ourselves to get better,” he said. “We’re studying the plasticity of the brain so we can understand how abilities can improve.”
It may be that the brain — or some brains — can handle certain levels of multitasking and not others, he said. Surfing the Web and talking on the phone may not place the same demand on available cognitive resources as, say, cruising down the highway and sending a text message. It’s an area of research that scientists and psychologists are just starting to explore, he said.
“We’re pushing the brain to master switching between tasks,” he said. “But if abilities can actually improve, the question is, by how much?”
Attention as currency
A budding industry is geared toward helping people manage their attention and the various sites and services that hope to command it. But some of the makers of the biggest offenders of distracting technology are adding features that give users more control over their availability and accessibility to the rest of the world.
Apple plans to introduce a new feature called “Do Not Disturb” into an update of its next generation of mobile software, iOS. The feature will mute notifications and phone calls.
Susan Etlinger, a consultant at the Altimeter Group who advises companies on how best to use technology, said that phones and services that offered greater controls to manage interruptions could become an important selling point for buyers and tech users.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that attention is the new currency,” she said. “Consider social networks and the businesses we interact with every day. They are all competing for a sliver of our time and attention. So maintaining our attention becomes a competitive advantage.”
But she offered a glimmer of hope. Even if our brains can’t adjust to the waves of information and services demanding our time, perhaps technology will someday emerge to do that for us.