Do you have a wandering mind? It’s probably making you unhappy.

The other day we revisited the subject of multi-tasking and I talked about a few ways I try to remain focused. Focus isn’t just important for productivity, it’s also a core competency for happiness.

Back in 2010 Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert published a scientific paper titled: A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.

We developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found (i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy.

Let me say that a different way: spending your life thinking about things that aren’t happening is making you unhappy. You would be happier if you focused on the here and now.

So much of the multi-tasking that we do is an attempt to switch between multiple things that aren’t happening, it’s a type of active mind-wandering. How many times do we check our social media to see if something is happening only to be reminded that nothing is happening. How many times have you refreshed your social media site only to refresh it again, and then again without even thinking. The research tells us that this is making us unhappy.

Below is Matt Killingworth talking through his work at TEDx:

Matt also talked through his findings on the TED Radio Hour in 2014.

Let’s talk about Multitasking again!

Confessions of a multitasker

I am a multitasker; I’m doing it now.

There are a group of people sat around me discussing something, it’s a discussion that I could contribute too, but I’m also writing this blog post, I’m also allowing my iPhone to interrupt me. I’ve done this on many occasions and every time I do it I tell myself that I’m not going to do it again, so why am I doing it? The lie that I am telling myself is that the discussion doesn’t need all of my attention and I would be better spending my time doing something useful. I am kidding myself and every time you do something similar you are kidding yourself.

(I’ve been writing this blog post for over 40 minutes now and written 104 words. If I’d gone off to a quiet corner and really engaged I would have finished this post already. I’ll leave you to judge, but I suspect the quality of the words would be better as well.)

A recent report from the World Economic Forum based on some research from Stanford University, University of London and Sussex University highlighting the consequences of all of this multitasking which is probably more damaging than we might imagine.

Some of the report states what has been known for some time:

Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.

Repeat those words to yourself a few times: “your brain can only focus on one thing as a time”.

The report goes further, not only are you being less productive in the moment, the research is starting to point towards the impact being longer term:

It was long believed that cognitive impairment from multitasking was temporary, but new research suggests otherwise. Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.

While more research is needed to determine if multitasking is physically damaging the brain (versus existing brain damage that predisposes people to multitask), it’s clear that multitasking has negative effects.

So there you have it, there’s no advantage to be gained from multitasking, yet, we continue to tell ourselves that we are gaining something from trying to do two things at once. This isn’t the only situation where we behave illogically, but it is a growing madness as screens continue to proliferate.

Personally, I’ve been trying to build a set of practices which insulate me from the temptation to multitask. When i get home I’m trying to leave my iPhone somewhere out of reach and preferably out of view. I’m trying to take notes on paper in meetings, leaving the screens in my bag. When I have screen time I’m practising closing all applications apart from the one I’m focused on. I’m practising scheduling my days on a piece of paper. Another practice is to spend time in each day in silence or with quiet music without screens giving my brain time to calm down. What are your practises?

(It eventually took me two hours to write this post while multitasking which I did as a bit of an experiment to highlight the challenge. Hopefully the practices will reduce the time I’m multitasking and hopefully there isn’t any lasting damage to my brain.)

What's your mobile device posture?

I’ve spent too many years bent poorly over a keyboard and have suffered many of the consequences.

Recently I’ve been conscious of taking on poor posture in other places as I’ve used my iPhone more and more.

A recent study by Kenneth K. Hansraj, MD, Chief of Spine Surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine has modelled the physical stresses that our neck posture puts on the cervical spine.

Your head and neck weigh in at about 6kg (13lb). In an upright position that weight is going straight down the spine and not requiring the muscles to do too much. Tilt your head forward and the weight starts to cause strain on the neck muscles; the further forward that you tilt the more strain you are putting on those muscles.

Imagine holding a bowling ball out in front of you on a bent arm and that the kind of pressure we are talking about.

Now imagine doing that for between two and four hours a day and hopefully you’ll start to get the picture that this isn’t a good thing to do.

Tilting your neck forward at a 30 degree angle results in pressures of over 18kg (40lbs), at 60 degrees it’s up over 27kg (60lbs). That 27Kg is over 4.5 times the weight of your head and neck or something like the weight of an 8-year-old.

The conclusion of the study says this:

The weight seen by the spine dramatically increases when flexing the head forward at varying degrees. Loss of the natural curve of the cervical spine leads to incrementally increased stresses about the cervical spine. These stresses may lead to early wear, tear, degeneration, and possibly surgeries.

While it is nearly impossible to avoid the technologies that cause these issues, individuals should make an effort to look at their phones with a neutral spine and to avoid spending hours each day hunched over.

You can find an overview of the research here and more commentary on npr.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Autonomy, mastery, purpose – I’ve used these words a lot recently, it seems that barely a day goes by without a conversation coming around the these three words.

The words come from a book by Daniel Pink called Drive. This is the Cocktail Party Summary which gives most of what you need to know for this post:

When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators–doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements: 1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives. 2. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters. 3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

The reverse is also true; if you motive people by giving them autonomy, mastery and purpose, you demotivate people by restricting their autonomy, utilising them in tasks that don’t extend their mastery and by disconnect them from any sense purpose.

Recently Forrester posted this image on their twitter feed:

I’ve not had chance to read the research that generated this picture, other than a short summary which says:

Research in worker productivity reveals that the top 1% of performers in high-complexity knowledge work, such as engineers, systems analysts, and project managers, are 127% more productive than average performers and up to 47 times more productive than the bottom 1% of performers. We believe that firms that favor strict, centralized policies and control of technology resources will fall farther behind their competitors in employee motivation, customer service, and employee retention. Firms that instead favor investments in autonomy and improving information access on the go will have the advantage by increasing employee motivation and performance.

If you look at the picture and apply to it those three words – autonomy, mastery, purpose – you’ll soon recognise the similarities about what is being said.

Many of the conversations that I’ve been having recently have been about people on the road to burnout. What I find is that many organisations recognise the cost of stress and burnout but don’t recognise the activities that are driving people towards that burnout. There’s a common misconception that a major part of burnout is the quantity of work that people are expected to do but I’m starting to realise that it’s got a lot more to do with a lack of motivation which is created by the removal of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Remember: “When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does.”

Daniel explains a bit more in these videos:

The TED version:

The Animated version:

The Extended version:

Do you need a contract with your smartphone?

A number of sources have covered this story over the last few days:

My initial response on seeing the headlines was that this was some over-protective American parent who had no clue about how the real world worked (in the UK we always assume that stories like this are American). An 18-point contract? Are you mad?

Having read through the contract my opinion has completely reversed (apart from it being American, of course). This is a Mom who has thought a lot about the way that we interact with technology, the Internet, the dangers of being a teenager and the impact of all of those upon us.

If more of us followed more of these rules then many of us would be in a much better place.

Here’s the full list:

1. It is my phone. I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you. Aren’t I the greatest?

2. I will always know the password.

3. If it rings, answer it. It is a phone. Say hello, use your manners. Do not ever ignore a phone call if the screen reads “Mom” or “Dad”. Not ever.

4. Hand the phone to one of your parents promptly at 7:30pm every school night & every weekend night at 9:00pm. It will be shut off for the night and turned on again at 7:30am. If you would not make a call to someone’s land line, wherein their parents may answer first, then do not call or text. Listen to those instincts and respect other families like we would like to be respected.

5. It does not go to school with you. Have a conversation with the people you text in person. It’s a life skill. *Half days, field trips and after school activities will require special consideration.

6. If it falls into the toilet, smashes on the ground, or vanishes into thin air, you are responsible for the replacement costs or repairs. Mow a lawn, babysit, stash some birthday money. It will happen, you should be prepared.

7. Do not use this technology to lie, fool, or deceive another human being. Do not involve yourself in conversations that are hurtful to others. Be a good friend first or stay the hell out of the crossfire.

8. Do not text, email, or say anything through this device you would not say in person.

9. Do not text, email, or say anything to someone that you would not say out loud with their parents in the room. Censor yourself.

10. No porn. Search the web for information you would openly share with me. If you have a question about anything, ask a person ? preferably me or your father.

11. Turn it off, silence it, put it away in public. Especially in a restaurant, at the movies, or while speaking with another human being. You are not a rude person; do not allow the iPhone to change that.

12. Do not send or receive pictures of your private parts or anyone else’s private parts. Don’t laugh. Someday you will be tempted to do this despite your high intelligence. It is risky and could ruin your teenage/college/adult life. It is always a bad idea. Cyberspace is vast and more powerful than you. And it is hard to make anything of this magnitude disappear — including a bad reputation.

13. Don’t take a zillion pictures and videos. There is no need to document everything. Live your experiences. They will be stored in your memory for eternity.

14. Leave your phone home sometimes and feel safe and secure in that decision. It is not alive or an extension of you. Learn to live without it. Be bigger and more powerful than FOMO — fear of missing out.

15. Download music that is new or classic or different than the millions of your peers that listen to the same exact stuff. Your generation has access to music like never before in history. Take advantage of that gift. Expand your horizons.

16. Play a game with words or puzzles or brain teasers every now and then.

17. Keep your eyes up. See the world happening around you. Stare out a window. Listen to the birds. Take a walk. Talk to a stranger. Wonder without googling.

18. You will mess up. I will take away your phone. We will sit down and talk about it. We will start over again. You & I, we are always learning. I am on your team. We are in this together.

It is my hope that you can agree to these terms. Most of the lessons listed here do not just apply to the iPhone, but to life. You are growing up in a fast and ever changing world. It is exciting and enticing. Keep it simple every chance you get. Trust your powerful mind and giant heart above any machine. I love you. I hope you enjoy your awesome new iPhone. Merry Christmas!

xoxoxo

Mom

How many of these would make it into the contract you would write for yourself?

I particularly liked this one:

14. Leave your phone home sometimes and feel safe and secure in that decision. It is not alive or an extension of you. Learn to live without it. Be bigger and more powerful than FOMO — fear of missing out.

For me the the Christmas and New Year break was an opportunity for another Internet and always-on detox. It felt great to be walking around the Lake District without anything to distract me from taking in the world around me (I didn’t even have a camera as it’s at the repairers).

You might think that a contract is a bit over-the-top but I like the idea, it’s all too easy to let our standards slip over time.

The Observer: 'I feel more fulfilled without the internet'

This weekend The Observer carried a really interesting article from Jake Davis who was banned from using the Internet because of his activities under the banner of “Internet Feds”, “Anonymous” and “LulzSec“.

If you are a reasonably regular visitor to this blog you’ll know that one of the themes that we return to quite regularly is the impact of modern technology on our brains and information addiction.

Jake has been banned from using the Internet and has been away from a keyboard for 12 months. His observations in the article are very interesting for anyone who spends a lot of their time using technology:

I’m often asked: what is life like without the net? It seems strange that humans have evolved and adapted for thousands of years without this simple connectivity, and now we in modern society struggle to comprehend existence without it. In a word, life is serene. I now find myself reading newspapers as though they weren’t ancient scrolls; entering real shops with real money in order to buy real products, and not wishing to Photoshop a cosmic being of unspeakable horror into every possible social situation. Nothing needs to be captioned or made into an elaborate joke to impress a citizenry whose every emotion is represented by a sequence of keystrokes.

It seems clear that Jake’s life was highly immersed in his Internet world and that removing the connection has allowed him to find a more serene place.

He goes on:

For it is our attention spans that have suffered the most. Our lives are compressed into short, advertisement-like bursts or “tweets”. The constant stream of drivel fills page after page, eating away at our creativity. If hashtags were rice grains, do you know how many starving families we could feed? Neither do I – I can’t Google it.

I’ve noticed this effect in my own attitudes and the attitudes of others. My ability to read for long periods has become severely impaired, and I have to make huge efforts to remove all of the distractions from around me if I’m going to focus on one particular thing.

In conclusion Jake says:

I hope, then, that others in a similar situation may decide to take a short break from the web (perhaps just for a week) and see if similar effects are found. It can’t hurt to try.

I try to make my holidays Internet free, but it’s increasingly difficult, it’s a practice I recommend to others, but see an ever-increasing number of people who find the disconnection too much to cope with.

Many years ago we recognised that using a keyboard too much and in the wrong position gave us RSI. In the UK we responded to this by implementing regular assessments of people’s workplace to try to avoid the physical problems. I wonder whether, in the future, we’ll do the same for the impact on our mental state.

Conversation, Connection, Communication, Rudeness, Isolation, Etiquette and Technology

This is probably more than one post, but all of the thoughts came at the same time and they kind of fit together so here they are as a single stream:

I have a rule, if I’m in a conversation with someone and they start to look at their mobile device or laptop I stop talking. I used to just sit there until the person came back, but after a couple of occasions where I’ve sat for a few minutes waiting for the person to come back I’ve modified my behaviour and I now leave. I give them a little while to come back, but if they have clearly left the conversation I will leave too.

Castle Stalker BayPreviously I’ve written about being In the same room, but not together when observing the interactions in my own family. At this year’s TED Sherry Turkle gave a talk on Connected, but alone? She has some very interesting, and worrying, things to say about our relationship with our devices:

Our little devices are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are.

She makes a much better job than I did of explaining the worry that I was expressing in my post Post 1000: Thinking about thinking, the brain and information addiction.

She goes on to say when talking about the way that we flit between being present and being somewhere else:

Across the generations I see that people can’t get enough of each other if, and only if, they can have each other at a distance in amounts they can control. I call it the goldilocks effect – not too close, not too far, just right.

In other words – we are desperate to connect but we want to do it on our own terms and in a way that provides immediate gratification.

Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone?

If you watch the recent Project Glass video posted by Google you’ll notice many of these same characteristics in the interactions that they envisage. Notice how long it is before the person wearing the glasses interacts with a real person and how many opportunities he had to interact that were replaced by technology.

Project Glass: One day…