The Wall Street Journal

How Smartphones Sabotage Your Brain's Ability to Focus

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Our phones give us instant gratification. But there's a cost: loss of attention and productivity. WSJ's Daniela Hernandez goes on a quest to understand the science of distractions and what you can do stay be more focused and productive. Photo/Illustration: Natalia V. Osipova/Drew Evans


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This survey was conducted online within the United States from January 8-11 among 2,854 registered voters by HarrisX. The sampling margin of error of this poll is plus or minus 1.8 percentage points. The results reflect a nationally representative sample of registered voters. Results were weighted for age, gender, region, race/ethnicity, income, political party, education, ideology, area type, and vote choice where necessary to align them with their actual proportions in
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- Attention, much like your daily allowance
of money is a limited resource
and in any particular moment,
you can only have that much of it.
- We live in an age of constant distractions
nine to five is out, 24/7 is in.
With my smartphone in hand I bring my work
with me everywhere but our devices make us less attentive.
Having spent 10 years doing research in neurobiology,
I wondered what technology does to our brains.
I set out to understand the science of distractions
and learn how to be more focused
and boost our productivity.
By some measures we're bombarded
by more than 63 notifications a day.
We receive over 90 emails and write about 40 of them.
On average we switch tasks every three minutes.
When we face distractions two areas of the brain,
the parietal cortex and the frontal cortex are
in a sort of tug of war with each other.
Some research suggests that the parietal cortex responds
to distractions, the frontal cortex which is involved
in cognitively demanding tasks helps us maintain focus.
So we get distracted if the activity
of the parietal cortex gets through to the frontal cortex.
If the frontal cortex can keep the parietal in check,
you stay focused.
The brain is deciding what's important and what's not
and that takes effort.
- Even when you're cleaning your mailbox
and you're not actually doing hard cognitive work,
you kinda actually are because there's all
these essentially micro decisions.
Looking at this email, do I need this,
and so each of those decision
requires a little bit more of cognitive effort
and so but when you add 2,000 of those,
you end up with no, no power
to make any other important decisions
after that, if you deplete it.
- Tell me a little bit about the study
that you did focused on email.
- What we found was that checking email more frequently
throughout the day was associated
with feeling more stressed and overwhelmed.
- [Daniela] In the study, one group of people were asked
to check their email whenever they wanted throughout the day
while the other group had to do it in batches.
- We found that people who batched their emails three
to five times a day felt less stressed and less overwhelmed.
- Why are these tasks that seem really menial,
why are they so stressful and anxiety inducing?
- You're basically doing something that other people need.
Let's imagine that attention is this calm lake
or you know the reflecting pool
and then each notification is a little drop in that lake.
We can think of the reflectiveness as you know the ability
to actually focus on what's going on around us
but when we have all these drops all the time,
now you get a reflecting pool disturbed and frazzled.
- [Daniela] If email is like rain, notifications seem
like a storm to our productivity and our ability to focus.
The higher the cognitive load the more susceptible we are
to new distractions.
Notifications on our phones draw our attention away
from the task at hand so completing
it may ultimately require more effort.
- Every time you get distracted
by a notification you have to switch your attention
and switch it back, the switching in and of
itself actually requires cognitive effort
and so you end up more depleted at the end of the day.
- So what do we do as cellphone users to mitigate that?
- Some things that I do
is I do have scheduled do not disturb times
which you can set on your phone
when you know basically no notifications come in.
In general, I do keep my phone on silent.
I actually am like most people a little addicted
to my email and a little addicted
to social media and messages,
so I do actually open those apps frequently enough
that I don't need to be reminded I need
to open it every, every minute.
- [Daniela] So to take new technologies we may first need
to reconsider how and when we rely on them.
- We did a study not in an organization
but on campus where we asked students
to find a building either with their phones
or without the help of their phones.
And yes the students who relied
on their phones got to the building faster
but these same students actually felt less connected
to their community and so it's not a question
of you know should we just do away
with these devices but what is the price
of this convenient device.
These social bonds that hold society together I think
are getting more and more chipped away from us.
- [Daniela] Our devices and apps aren't the only way
to crush it at the office.
Casual conversations at work make us feel more connected,
happier, and productive that's what science is telling us.
(upbeat instrumental music)

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