The Curse of the Modern Age

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“For a list of the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life,” says Alice Kahn, “please press three.”

I’m sure you know what she’s talking about.

And even if you don’t, let me ask you this: How often do you, you know, do “it?” Maybe once in the morning… and again in the afternoon?

I’ll bet. Or maybe you like to do “it” just before lunch… or just after lunch… or before and after and during? That wouldn’t surprise me either.

And then there’s your coffee break… what else are you going to do while waiting for a pot to brew? Not to mention just before meetings… or during meetings… and as soon as one ends.

Yep, you do “it” all the time. You just can’t stop yourself. Sadly, you’re not alone. Because the rest of us probably do “it” too often too.

Of course, I’m talking about checking your email… your tweets… your texts… and your Facebook alerts.

Not so long ago, it was a non-issue. Now every computer in the world seems to ding all day with new message alerts. And if not the computers, it’s the cell-phones. Or even iPods and iPads, since they connect too.

It’s everywhere.

You can even log in on your way to the bathroom… or IN the bathroom… (please tell me you’re not reading this in a stall).

And how about that quick download before dinner… or during dinner… or just before drifting off to sleep?

How about in the elevator… at a stop light… or in motion. Maybe even over the shoulder of your loved one, during a warm but, let’s be honest, not so time-efficient embrace.

If any six of the scenarios above sound familiar… or if you’ve wondered if a Ziploc bag could protect your iPad in the shower… you might have a problem. And you wouldn’t be alone again, you wouldn’t be alone. Or so says Matt Richtel, a tech writer for the New York Times.

Maybe this comes to you as no surprise.

This is, after all, the age of high-tech multi-tasking. Or is it? Not according to a handful of studies cited in one of Richtel’s recent articles.

And if you’re wondering why you feel busy all the time but you don’t get anything done — this might be the reason why.

In short, our brains just aren’t built for the perpetually “plugged in” lifestyle. It may, in fact, be costing you.

Now hang on there, cupcake.

Yes, I DO realize the irony.

After all, I’m a direct response copywriter. My bread and butter rely on people opening messages, including email. And yes, I also write an e-letter, which is delivered by email and in which this article originally appeared (sign up in the box to the right).

But between you and me, have you noticed your relationship changing at all with your inbox? Mine certainly has. Case in point, in the beginning, days of Compuserve, I could barely get enough. I too was a serial email reader. I must have hit the “get mail” button a dozen times a day, eager for contact. Not so much anymore.

I now have, for example, over 3,000 emails sitting in my inbox. Some are dated from six months ago. Not all demand answers, many of them are junk. And I could go through right now and separate them accordingly. But I won’t. Why? Because I’ve even actively decided not to.

Because I’ve even actively decided not to.

I recently heard a radio host sum up at least one part of the problem like this: each email is a moment on someone else’s agenda. Tell me this, answer me that, find and send me this info. How true. And yet, she said, she can’t resist knowing if anything new has come in. So she checks — just for a second — and finds herself lost, an hour or more later.

Sound familiar?

I don’t want that. I can’t afford that. So I stay away. These days, much as I want to, I try not to start checking email until after 4 pm… 3 pm if I’m feeling weak. Because it’s the only way.

How about you?

You’re either in the zone… or you’re not. When you’re in it, you know. Because that’s when even a five-alarm fire would have a tough time getting you to move from your chair or stop what you’re doing.

I’m sure you “get” the feeling. So, you might still be asking… how did we get so hooked on email and tweets and Facebook and the rest in the first place, especially when the cost to your productivity is so obvious?

Say California researchers, the reason you have such a tough time stopping yourself from checking your email or whatever other inputs you’ve got going is simple.

It’s because it delivers dopamine “squirts” to your brain. You get hooked, it turns out, to that series of tiny excitements as one email after another rolls in.

Not unlike the smoker taking his first puff after a long international flight… or a drinker getting a martini after a long day in the salt mines.

It’s a joy to get the jolt, over and over again. And without it, you learn to feel perpetually bored. But it’s a bigger issue now than ever, says Richtel. Today, we’re hit with three times as much daily media as we were in the 1960s. What’s more, your average computer user visits 40 web pages per day.

Think about that.

We email colleagues at the next desk. We tweet our insights to friends, then meet up with nothing to talk about. We bask in the glow of unending online Facebook reunions, without actually seeing the people we’re “talking” to for years on end.

It’s all got its merits.

Business-wise, it’s been amazing. Many a direct-response company has been saved thanks to new media. Some have learned how to turn it into $100s of millions per year. And I’m happy to be one of the beneficiaries.

But what’s it tell you when even the Pope feels like it’s time to weigh in? Here’s what he told the NYT:

Here’s what he told the NYT:

“Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world…

“In the search for sharing, for ‘friends’, there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”

(Intrigued? You can check out Papal (no, I didn’t mean to write “Paypal”) proclamations like this one in eight languages, courtesy of the Vatican’s iPhone app. I kid you not.)

But addiction and virtual loneliness are just the beginning of the problem. Even bigger, in my opinion, is the illusion of productivity that goes with all this message fueled effort.

It gives us the illusion, yes, that we’re getting lots done. We are, if the email feeds are to believed, multi-tasking our way through lots of things that demand our attention, all at once.

The document feedback, the afternoon call, the kid’s B-Day party… when you bang out a message on each in under a few minutes, you feel like you’re changing the world.

But multi-tasking, says Richtel’s research for his article, is bunk. An illusion. If you think you’re good at it, he suggests, there’s a likelihood you’re kidding yourself.

How so?

First, let me freely admit, I’m not a multi-tasker at all. I’ve never been. Walk and chew gum? I’m lucky I get through breakfast without falling out of my chair.

Without 100% focus, I can’t work.

That makes me a pain in the you-know-what to be around during the day. I scowl when I type, I’m told. And look up at interruptions like I’m ready to bite.

And I don’t doubt it. Because I now that once I stop, I’ll need another half hour to get rolling again.

I’ve always felt a little bad about that.

But it turns out, according to what Richtel says is “half a century of proof,” many more of us are that way than I ever imagined.

What’s more, you’re probably better off resigning yourself to focusing on one thing than you realize.

Even though, with your email alerts dinging and your cell-phone vibrating, it doesn’t always feel that way. When you multi-task, says a particular set of scientists from the University of San Diego, it might feel like you’re doing a lot at once. But what you’re actually doing is switching back and forth between tasks. And most likely, you’re not doing it well.

Think cocktail party and trying to register two conversations simultaneously… think airline pilot tweeting to his girlfriend during a landing… think surgeon calling the deli for a roast beef on rye, while he’s wrapping up a brain operation.

If we’re paying attention to one process, say the tests, our brains are hard-wired to ignore everything else. Even if only for microseconds at a time.

So what, if we get it done, right?

I know one guy who writes with the TV on, he says. And he’s good. I know others who keep IM and email windows open and cell phones within reach. And they all still earn a good living.

But you have to wonder, how much better would they do without the willing distractions? Maybe a lot better, if these findings are right.

In fact, the research even shows that those that cling their multi-tasking beliefs end up being SLOWER in tests than the single-minded simpletons, who score better at both noticing small details and juggling when forced to balance between different assignments. I guess what I’m saying is… wait, hang on a sec… I just got an email… this is good… ha… I’ll be right back, I swear…

Last modified: October 4, 2017

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