Perhaps ‘the’ most tantalising allure of any advancement in engineering or technology through the ages has been the promise of saving us time. Cars, trains and planes certainly get us places faster than horses ever did. Bridges and tunnels allow us to take short-cuts over rivers and through mountains, saving us hours. Advances in IT and robotics mean that tasks previously handled manually have been automated with exponential levels of increased productivity.
Why, with so much technology and time-saving gadgetry at our fingertips, do people still present at coaching sessions with issues and concerns about their ability to manage their time? After all, our lives have never appeared to be more organised ~ or perhaps I should say digitised! More and more of us are hooked up to the Net from morning to night.
Our smartphones and tablets wake us up, we check our diary for appointments and read our messages before getting out of bed. We catch up on missed shows on iPlayer or Stitcher while we commute to work. We juggle collaborating on Sharepoint, with watching company Webcasts, while occasionally dipping into our personal Instagram, Twitter or WhatsApp accounts. We may even check in on Foursquare while grabbing lunch, and be just as likely to choose where to go by WiFi availability as the quality of the food. On the way home we might burn some carbs, having gained access with our fingerprint or iris, which are digitised on the gym’s customer database. We immediately wire ourselves up to the screens on the machines so as to catch up on news, or check Facebook activity. And when we get home, after a microwaved dinner, and a quick skype chat with your mum, our relaxation and wind down time may well include logging on remotely to your work’s email to ‘finish off’ a few things, and give yourself a fighting chance of making a clean start on things again in the morning (fat chance!).
So, what are the effects of having our brains as integrated with the Net as this? Well, there are many different views and opinions, and, in truth, the phenomenon is so relatively recent, at least with respect to the recent surge in internet, smartphone and social media technology, that we are unlikely to have definitive answers to this question for some time. However, with a combination of observational and scientific studies, some facts are emerging which give us some cause for concern.
Much of the evidence points to the same three significant conclusions.
Anti-Learning When we go online, we enter a world that encourages only cursory reading, bombards us with fragments of data, lures us into cul-de-sacs (oh, more kittens and puppies!!), preys on us with social pressure and guilt (if you don’t join the million other people who liked this picture of this poor cancer victim you are clearly a bad person), creates constant distraction (that looks like a great offer on flights to New York), and as a result, is completely counter-productive to effective learning (ref. The Shallows, Nicholas Carr, 2010).
We are being shaped like Lab Rats On average, people spend at least a couple of hours online every day, and a large number spend an enormous amount more, some even in excess of ten hours. While online, the tendency is to repeat the same or similar actions over and over again. We quickly master the ‘skill’ or dexterity to flick between multiple screens, to type texts at amazing speeds just with our thumbs, to respond to bleeps and tones signalling notifications or incoming messages. To watch someone immersed in the online world manipulate the keys, scroll the mouse, pinch the screen, rotate their device and respond to visual and auditory signals and feedback, is a fascinating exercise in human-machine interactivity. The nature of the relationship is one that has been well-known to psychologists for some time, based on their studies of lab rats. The complex pattern of intermittent reinforcement generated by our interactions with the online world ensures that our hunger can rarely be sated.
It’s changing our Brains The internet and the kaleidoscope of applications which sparkle and dance before our eyes cause our attention to be constantly diverted and interrupted. We are in a state of constant distractedness. Recent studies in neuroscience have coined the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together”. There is of course a converse consequence to this phenomenon, namely that neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. Carr argues in his book, The Shallows, that as we increase our time on web pages (and not reading books), texting (and not writing sentences and paragraphs), and fluttering between apps rather than reflecting, contemplating and consolidating deep learning, brain circuits that were previously devoted to these activities are being broken, and the neurons are being reassigned.
So, what does this have to do with the people who come to coaching sessions suggesting that time management and work pressures are the root of their issues? I would suggest that it is rarely a time management issue, but a brain rewiring issue. People are changing the way they think, the way they work and the way they address intellectual problems. The irony is that we are no more than a few clicks away from more knowledge than all of our ancestors combined could ever have dreamed of. And yet, our ability to engage in deep reading, quality thinking, and creativity is being dulled. We are suffering from a collective “cognitive overload” and, the addictive pressures to remain online, mean that we are depriving ourselves of the quiet, non-distracted, contemplative and reflective periods that allow connections to be made, new ideas to be assimilated and creativity to prosper.
People have the same time in each day as they ever did, but the way we are choosing to allocate our brain’s resources to handling our lives is changing rapidly and insidiously. As we struggle more and more to get to grips with corporate strategy, to grapple with making political decisions, and to agonise over IT designs, we can continue to put it down to workload and time pressure, but we need to look closer to home, inside our own heads, to the changes that are going on within our brains.
Are we content to allow the combined efforts of the Net to reduce us to mere skimmers, aggregators and summarisers, or are we prepared to adapt our approach to ensure deep learning, creative thinking and focus do not become qualities we only read about of characters in history?
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About the author: Louis Collins enables people to operate more successfully. You may be struggling to implement corporate strategy, you may want to get more productivity out of yourself or your teams but don’t know where to start, or you may not be having as effective conversations as you could be. I will work with you to enable you to formulate more effective ways of leading, to raise awareness of blockers to successful ways of working, and ultimately to help you and your managers to operate more successfully.