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Joe Robinson

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Is Email Making You Stupid?

Posted: 10/06/10 08:00 AM ET

Life highlights have one very overlooked item in common. Whatever the event, success or time you felt most alive, you were all in. You weren't checking your watch. You weren't spacing out. You weren't thinking about what screwed up yesterday or what was going to happen tomorrow, only about what it was you were in the thick of. You were 100 percent present and accounted for. You were paying attention.

Optimal experiences require your full and undivided attention. Happiness and success to a large degree depend on how engaged you are in whatever you're doing. Too bad you won't be having many of these times in the future, since attention is going the way of the dodo, thanks to the distraction derby of tech tools run amok.

The ability to direct attention is a skill critical to anything you want to succeed at -- work, relationships and especially life, which usually gets short shrift. Attention-directing is part of a group of behavioral tools I call "life intelligence," detailed in my new book, "Don't Miss Your Life." Like emotional intelligence, they're part of an acumen beyond IQ that increases your odds of doing well, in this case, of experiencing the fullest expression of your life allowed by law.

Unfortunately, your attention span is not what it used to be. Unbounded e-tools and 24/7 time panic are shredding one of your most valuable assets. Constant interruptions from cell calls, email and texts erode a part of the executive attention function in your brain, called effortful control, which regulates impulse control. That undermines your ability to control attention and resist impulsive behavior. In other words, the more you check email, the more you have to check it. The urge to check messages even though you just checked them five minutes ago is a telltale sign that your regulation equipment has left the building. Impulse control is on the blink--which also affects other things you're trying to regulate, such as diet or Farmville. Without the ability to restrain impulsive behavior, you're like a capuchin on crack, lurching from this random item to the next, and before you know it you have an absentee life. The gadgets are running you, instead of the other way around.

You wind up answering the phone on the can in a public rest room ("Oh, I'm doing great!"). The thought of being out of contact on vacation summons up separation anxiety. E-tools are very handy to have around, but they're also brilliant at playing to the social animal's need for positive reinforcement, which can be insatiable. Rutgers' Gayle Porter, co-author of a report on email addiction, says addiction to technology can be just as damaging as chemical or substance abuse.

Interruptions don't just scramble your attention, they also decrease your IQ, which can dive 10 points when you're being chronically interrupted. We get stupid when we're not paying attention, sending emails to people who weren't supposed to get them or to the right person with a wrong name. Distracted minds can't see the big picture, they make rash decisions and take in too much information too quickly until they're overloaded. Massachusetts psychiatrist Edward Hallowell calls the syndrome Attention Deficit Trait (ADT). Unlike Attention Deficit Disorder, you're not born with it. It's the byproduct of overcooked gray matter. It leads to distractibility, chronic time urgency and impatience.

Our brains are paying the price for a critical management tool that's gone missing: boundaries. In a given day the average knowledge worker checks messages 50 times and receives more than 100 emails. The cult of multitasking fans ADT further. Each time your brain shifts to a different task, it takes a while for your thoughts to get back to where they were on that task. So multitasking doesn't speed things up; it slows you down, by up to 40 percent. Studies at the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt have shown that multitasking is really a misnomer. You are not doing multiple, high-thought tasks simultaneously, particularly anything involving language. There's only one neural channel for the information to flow through. You're switching back and forth between tasks, fracturing attention in the process.

The good news is that ADT is not permanent. You can get out from under the thumb of runaway email and reclaim your attention and life. We've become so used to unbounded messaging and having this stuff rule us that it seems heretical to do anything about it, but it's just one of many reflex habits in the workplace counter to the science of productivity that we can adjust, and need to.

Clients in my corporate workshops or coaching work don't believe it at first that they can check email less than constantly. It seems a violation of digital law. But it turns out humans can call the shots and set the terms of engagement, not the devices. If you have your email on autopilot every five minutes, that's a potential of 96 interruptions over the course of the day. You can cut that to 11, saving 85 interruptions, by checking manually every 45 minutes. That's still a lot of checking. Researchers at Oklahoma State University found that four times daily is the most productive checking schedule, once in the morning, before lunch, after lunch and before you go home.

You can start managing this attention-killer by checking your email manually at set times. You can slash the amount of incoming mail with a "no reply necessary" in the subject line or body of your message. That's a good thing to do, since often every email results in six, three going, three coming back. They're like rabbits. You have to spay and neuter.

By setting boundaries and making a few adjustments to task practices, you can start to clear time for life and rebuild attention. The key method for increasing your concentration powers is focus on a target. Meditation has been shown to be very effective at this, as is any exercise that rivets thoughts on the task at hand.

One of the best attention-building tools is something you couldn't conceive of in a frazzled, ADT state: recreational activities. Whether it's aikido, dancing or stunt kite flying, they force you to concentrate on the rules of the game and action, so there's no room for anything else in your head. Total awareness is directed to the moment of experience. As your skills meet the challenge of the pursuit, you're vaulted into the realm of optimal experience. And when you are, there are no distractions between you and what you're here for. You're all in.

Joe Robinson is an author and work-life balance/stress management trainer, whose new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," explores the science, skills and spirit of full-tilt living. The book is out Oct. 26. His audio CD, The Email Overload Survival Kit, details tools and rules for out-of-control in-boxes. For more info, visit dontmissyourlife.net, and twitter.com/worklifeskills. For workshops and coaching, visit worktolive.info.

 
 
 

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