I have had difficulty finishing this post for days…I’ve been so distracted! I suppose that’s fitting considering I’m writing about The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley (a neuroscientist) and Larry D. Rosen (a psychologist). I will confess that I’ve not done a good job following their suggestions for fighting distractions.
If you’re like me, you regularly feel like there is too much on your “to-do” list each day. I often catch myself thinking, “If only I had a few more hours I could get it all done!” Yet I know that wouldn’t solve the problem – I would probably just put more things on my list. I’ve started trying to flip that script by considering that perhaps I’ve put too much on my list and/or that my expectations for what I think I can complete in a day are much too high. However, that’s still not helping me meet my daily goals.
There is one more angle to explore, one that Gazzaley and Rosen (2016) explore in their book. They highlight that we are “information-seeking creatures” with an innate drive to continually seek new information (p. 13). As information specialists, school librarians are well acquainted with this concept. We are experts in accessing, evaluating, and using information, but how often do we stop to consider how the brain processes that information? Gazzaley and Rosen (2016) state,
We have come to believe that the human brain is a master navigator of the river of information that rages steadily all around us. And yet we often feel challenged when trying to fulfill even simple goals. This is the result of interference – both distractions from irrelevant information and interruptions by our attempts to simultaneously pursue multiple goals. (p. 3)
So, perhaps our inability to meet our goals is not entirely because of not having enough time or engaging with too many tasks. Gazzaley and Rosen (2016) outline four types of interference that keep us from attaining our goals:
- Internal distraction: This occurs when your mind wanders against your will.
- External distraction: This occurs when your senses engage external stimuli (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) that capture your attention.
- Internal interruption: This is voluntarily engaging in a secondary internal task, such as following another line of thought while attempting to engage in a conversation.
- External interruption: This is voluntarily engaging in a secondary external task, such as eavesdropping on another conversation while attempting to remain engaged with a primary conversation.
Our cognitive control is limited – there is only so much information we can hold in our minds or process during a period of time. We try to expand this by engaging in “multitasking,” but what we are actually doing is self-interrupting by switching between tasks. According to Gazzaley and Rosen (2016),
…we seem to have lost the ability to single task. Glance around a restaurant, look at people walking on a city street, pay attention to people waiting in line for a movie or the theater, and you will see busily tapping fingers. We act as though we are no longer interested in or able to stay idle and simply do nothing. We appear to care more about the people who are available through our devices than those who are right in front of our faces. And perhaps more critically, we appear to have lost the ability to simply be alone with our thoughts. (p. 112)
Technology innovations have provided us with many life-enhancing benefits, but they have also provided a means to engage in frequent self-interruption. We severely limit our ability to focus on and complete our main tasks when we choose to scroll through our phones, check email, or look up something online.
I am certainly guilty of this, and I believe it’s why I’m not able to accomplish as much in a day as I would like. While writing this post, I glanced at my phone several times and checked my email in another browser window. Becoming self-aware of this is likely the first step to limiting interruptions. If you’re having difficulty meeting your daily goals, I challenge you to do the same – begin by noting how often you encounter the four types of interference, especially external interruptions facilitated by technology use. Then, make a plan to limit that interference. My plan includes silencing my phone and setting it out of sight, and closing my email on my computer while I work on a specific task. In doing this, we might find that our productivity increases and our stress level decreases.
Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2016). The distracted mind: Ancient brains in a high-tech world. MIT Press.
Author: Melanie Lewis Croft
Melanie Lewis Croft is an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of West Georgia and program coordinator for its fully online School Library Media Program. Dr. Croft has worked with all grade levels and subject areas across a variety of learning environments in public, private, urban, and rural school systems. She served the K-12 field of education for 17 years as a state-certified elementary level classroom teacher, secondary level library media specialist, and district administrator of technology, library services, and curriculum. Since 2014, Dr. Croft has worked at the university level as both a faculty member and program coordinator of two graduate education programs in school library media. She currently serves AASL as a member of the School Library Research Editorial Board and contributor to the Knowledge Quest Blog.