Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Declaring War on Distractors

[Wrested from the jaws of Jaws, yesterday's intended post.]

Marshall Cook’s book, Slow Down. . .and Get More Done, was written over 17 years ago.  For the most part, his observations and advice are still as relevant to our problems with productivity as when they were written, if not more so.

Chapter 5, “How to say ‘No’ to the great distractors,” however, is a considerable understatement of present-day challenges with focus.  Here, those seventeen years encompass a sea change in the way we live.  For example, in just the six year span between 2002 and 2008, the number of cell phones in use quadrupled, from 1 billion to over 4 billion!  For iPhone users like my husband, the ubiquity of connectivity means never having to say you’re unavailable.

And then there’s the computer.  NPR’s Fresh Air presented a program yesterday entitled “Digital Overload:  Your Brain on Gadgets.”   Smartphones and other gizmos are implicated along with the computer, where it all began.  Along with host Terry Gross, listeners learned that we are presently consuming “three times the information we consumed in 1960;” that we “check something like 40 websites a day”  and “switch programs sitting at a desk something like 36 times an hour”—amounting to “an onslaught of information.”

Terry's guest, New York Times technology writer Matt Richtel, contributed to a recent Times series on “Your Brain on Computers.”  Articles in the series include:

Five neuroscientists spent a week on a hiking and rafting trip to understand how heavy use of technology changes how we think and behave.
Parents’ use of smartphones and laptops — and its effect on their children — is becoming a source of concern to researchers.
June 10, 2010GARDENNEWS
Scientists say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information from e-mail and other interruptions.
“We’re paying a price in terms of our cognitive life because of this virtual lifestyle,” one expert says.
Polls show that a number of Americans, particularly younger ones, are feeling negative effects from heavy computer and smartphone use.

Richtel's most recent piece, "Outdoors and Out of Reach:  Studying the Brain," documents a week-long trip taken by five neuroscientists into a technology-free wilderness, in an effort to learn more about how are brains are being affected by all the whizz-bang at our fingertips-- "what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected."  “Attention is the holy grail,” says Mr. Strayer University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, the trip’s organizer.

Two of the five scientists who set out on the trip were already persuaded of the downside of the effects of technology on our brains; the three others, not so much.  But by day three--Strayer calls it the "third-day syndrome"--all were more relaxed.  And 
even the more skeptical of the scientists say something is happening to their brains that reinforces their scientific discussions — something that could be important to helping people cope in a world of constant electronic noise.
In a related effort, the Times issued an "unplugged challenge," asking readers to design their own trials of technological disengagement.  At this Times website, you can see for yourself how several "unpluggers" fared, and what they learned.  Most reflected that they intended to change their relationship to their gadgets somewhat as a result.

At the series' main page, you can also make use of interactive and multimedia features to "test your focus;" learn about the "first steps to digital detox;" and assess yourself for the "warning signs of digital overload."  Of course, some astute readers pointed out that these resources themselves were presented in a highly technical format, on a website!  Marshall Cook would be horrified!

Cook was concerned all those light-years ago, in what seems from our "noise"-saturated standpoint like a galaxy far, far away, with the distraction-potential of the phone (predominantly land lines); television; junk mail; and people who function in our lives as "time-suckers."  At the conclusion of his 17-year-old chapter, Cook provides a dodge of sorts for all us distracted folk, even the techno-junkies among us.  He holds that
[j]ust as "I don't want to" is a valid and sufficient reason not to do something, "I like to" is a valid reason to keep doing something that has no practical worth. . . .
He instructs us to make a list of our 
time-wasters that have no socially recognized practical value but which you nevertheless choose to do. 
His own list?
  • Reading fiction
  • Writing a novel about minor league baseball
  • Writing personal letters
  • Walking or riding the bike to work instead of taking the bus or driving
  • Taking the long way
  • Going to movies
  • Shooting baskets with Jeremiah [probably not the bullfrog]
  • Talking long walks with Ellen and Rosie [probably not the talk-show hosts]
  • Petting Ralph and Norton [probably not of The Honeymooners fame]

And only 
if any items on your list have no practical value and have no emotional or psychological value for you [should you] strongly consider getting rid of them.  Simplify.  Unclutter.  Unplug. . . .Use your standards, your feelings, your intuitions.  Only you can define "waste of time" for you.

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