The human race has reached a point of information overload, or at least a point where some feel so overwhelmed by an unrelenting firehose of messages delivered 24/7 by our various devices that they would risk their lives while driving just to retrieve one more text message or phone call. Our brains have evolved to adapt and change easily, so we are in the midst of a grand experiment: What is the influence of technology on the brain? Our teenage children send hundreds of texts per day. What is that doing to their growing brains?
A number of studies using the latest neuroimaging technologies have examined the brain’s activity when it goes one-on-one with the internet. One recent techno-fascinating study found differences in brain activation according to whether people had internet experience or not. Brain activation while on the Web was greater in people with Internet experience than in those without; multiple areas of the brain involved with decision-making and organization lit up. Is this a sign that, with use, the Internet can make us smarter, not more stupid? Or that it just makes our brains work harder, lacking the downtime to reflect and absorb? Much time will pass and many studies will be needed before we can answer these questions.
In the meantime, regardless of the state of technology now and in the future, you remain in the driver’s seat: You choose how to relate to technology. It’s critical to stay true to yourself, to your goals and aspirations. It’s vital to be mindful and intentional about using technology to support your marching to your own drummer. The following five steps, or rules of order, can help you navigate our technology-crazed world while cultivating an organized mind.
RULE 1: TAME THE FRENZY
Becoming less distracted or overwhelmed is the first step in the process of developing a healthy mind that can summon order out of frenzy. Before you can get focused, you need to get into control, or at least have a handle on your emotional frenzy. The sheer magnitude of information has created an overwhelming level of frenzy for many. Real and virtual information zooms at us head-on, demanding all of our brain resources. Choose the slow lane from time to time, allow space for productive thinking and reflecting, and calmly regain your perspective.
RULE 2: SUSTAIN ATTENTION
Sustained focus is now possible in your calm, grounded state. Stay connected to your intention: What is the goal of the moment, what does your attention need to be focused on? Keep your thinking on track and your plans in place before engaging with the vast possibilities our devices serve up. Take charge of using technology to its fullest, but don’t allow it to overtake you. You can then begin to maintain your uni-focus, one task at a time, and successfully ignore the many distractions around you.
RULE 3: APPLY THE BRAKES
Your focused brain also needs to be able to stop, just as surely as a good pair of brakes brings your car to a halt at a red light. From time to time, move the spotlight of your attention to the question of whether you should continue to focus on the task at hand. Or, when a new piece of information comes to you in the midst of an important task, stop and consider whether this new data point now trumps what just was priority number one. To be able to stop is vital, but it should be a thoughtful application of the brakes, not simply succumbing mindlessly to either hyperfocus or distraction.
RULE 4: MOLD INFORMATION
Your brain has the remarkable ability to hold various pieces of information that it has intently focused upon, analyzed and processed, and then use this information to guide future action — even after the information is completely out of visual sight. This brain skill of gathering and holding your working memory allows you to simultaneously concentrate on the larger important task while accumulating the data needed to better inform what you decide to do next. For example, you may think to yourself, “I was doing X, then came across Y, but outcome Z didn’t look good, so I want to return to X.” Use intentional self-talk to draw on your working memory so you can quickly run through different scenarios in your head. Think beyond one moment in time, asking yourself, “How have I responded in the past, and how did that work or not work for me?”
RULE 5: SHIFT SETS
The combination of a well-functioning working memory with the ability to set-shift — a state of mental flexibility and nimbleness — leads to creative leaps in thinking. Rather than rigidly following a linear path, allow your mind to jump, even leap, by welcoming the input of distractions or seeking out distractions, to generate new insights and ideas. Cultivate lightness in thought, be flexible and nimble, and be ready to move from one activity to another in the service of making new connections.
Margaret Moore (aka “Coach Meg”) is co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation. Paul Hammerness, M.D., is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder researcher. They wrote “Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time.”