The Internet and Your Brain – Part 2

Last time I talked about how the Internet may be changing our brains and affecting our ability to focus on a single thought process.  The constant pace of email, RSS, Twitter, Facebook and the ubiquitous link beckon us to keep moving along.  Bored with what you are reading or doing for even just a second?   There are always many more places you can visit with just the click of a mouse.

A related topic is how poor the brain actually is at multi-tasking.  Trying to watch TV while you read or write?  Turns out your brain does both worse.  All the “context switching” from one task to another requires a constant reloading of information from your long term memory into your limited short term memory.  Each time you change tasks, you essentially require a dump to disk and a reload.  Doing this over and over again many times an hour will quickly make you feel exhausted, tired, and stressed, yet this is just another day at work for the typical knowledge worker.  The result is not only worse performance and results, it also makes you feel worse.

The problem is not the technology.  I love the ability that operating systems have for multi-tasking, and have multiple windows open on my laptop (with a giant external monitor for even more real estate).  The problem is the way we abuse the technology.

Do we really need to check email every minute and be informed of new messages with a visual alert, a chime, and a badge in our taskbar? Does that increase our ability to get our job done?  Or does the constant interruption destroy our ability to think?  Is that new email a message from friend?  A dreaded response from a supervisor or colleague?  A new thing to add to your overloaded to-do list?  An excuse to procrastinate?  I’ll just have a look and see…all it takes is one little click.

There are of course some quick and easy things you can do to help alleviate the temptations, and most are pretty simple:

  • turn off new email notifications
  • set your email application to only check for new messages every 30 minutes or hour
  • shut down your email application (the horror!) and only turn it on when you are at a good stopping point in your writing or coding
  • turn on your email application for only one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon – unless your job specifically mandates fast responses (e.g. tech support, air traffic control, brain surgeon), or there is an immediate deadline (product launch, proposal due), the world will probably not end if you only respond to emails every day or so

Or you can enlist the help of some software to coax you along.  I’ve been playing with these tools:

  • Isolator – a nifty little (free) application for the Mac that blanks out or blurs every window on your computer except the front most.  It is a simple concept but is remarkably effective.
  • Full screen mode – writing and word processing software sometimes have full screen modes that hide everything except the text you are writing.  WriteRoom is the prime example, but Apple’s Pages app and many others now have something similar.
  • TidyRead, Safari Reader, Instapaper, etc. – various ways to read a web page without having all of the distracting sidebars, navigation, and so on. Safari 5 has a built in reader function.  All you have to do is click the “READER” button in your address bar.  As a bonus, it even loads multi-page articles into a single page all at once and removes all hyperlinks. Instapaper lets you clip articles for reading later in your browser, iPhone, iPad, etc, and those versions are free of clutter.  TidyRead is a Chrome and Firefox extension similar in concept to Safari 5 reader.  For a truly clutter free web experience it can be set to trigger automatically on each page load.
  • Pomodoro – promotes the concept of working on just one item for a fixed block of time (e.g. 25 minutes) before taking a short break and moving onto a new item (or back to the first one).  You don’t need software for this, but this free Mac app gives you a little clock in your menu bar and some reminders.
  • StayFocusd – a Chrome extension that lets you set a time limit on how long you can spend on distracting websites (I am looking at you Facebook) in any given day.  It is highly configurable (times and URLs).  A similar extension for Firefox is called LeechBlock.
  • Concentrate – a $29 Mac application that lets you specify a set of rules for a given task, such as quitting or launching applications, blocking websites and applications, executing AppleScripts, etc.  I don’t use it, but it looks interesting.
  • SelfControl – for the hardcore addict, this free Mac app blocks access to a designated list of websites for a set period of time, no questions asked.  Works across browsers and cannot be reset, even with a reboot.  You just have to wait for the time to be up.  Bonus: icon is a skull and crossbones.
  • Anti-social and Freedom – similar to SelfControl, but costs money and is available for both Windows and Mac.  Anti-social only blocks certain websites, while Freedom kills your Internet connection entirely.  A reboot will get you back, but the shame of rebooting just to check your email or Facebook will keep you focused.

By the way, I highly recommend the excellent book Refactor Your Wetware, which covers multi-tasking, focus, and cognitive function from the perspective of an engineer trying to optimize the processes.  It’s a great way to learn more about this topic, and find ways to improve your cognitive ability.