It’s the way most of us live now: You’re in the middle of work, when suddenly your email pings. Or your phone rings, or you get a text, or one of any number of other high-tech distractions interrupts your flow. Before you know it, you’ve lost the motivation to return to your project, and pretty soon you’re surfing Facebook or checking Twitter instead.
But could constant distractions actually be harming your brain?
It’s possible, say some experts. We know that driving while distracted can be dangerous, and recent research suggests that working while distracted may have its own downsides.
According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, our attention is a limited resource, and constant multitasking can sap the mental energy that we need to be creative, thoughtful, and even motivated to make healthy choices like passing up an afternoon trip to the office vending machine.
Simply put, when your brain is fatigued from dealing with constant digital distractions, your attention is scattered and your self-control weakens.
Why Splitting Your Attention Doesn’t Work
Just as car needs fuel to run, your brain needs the right resources to stay attentive. One 2007 study by Earl K. Miller, professor of neuroscience at the MIT Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, found that the brain relies on an area called the prefrontal cortex to focus.
And when you’re constantly shifting your focus from, say, an important report to the latest email to land in your inbox, you’re stressing your prefrontal cortex and leaving your brain with a lower reserve of energy to get the job done.
What’s the solution? Set up your attention to succeed, not fail. Put your phone on vibrate, or—gasp—turn it off for a few hours. Check your email just once an hour if you can. Some offices are even instituting “no email Fridays” to help boost productivity. And don’t forget that some distractions improve your creativity. Take a quick walk outside to clear your mind and gain a fresh perspective.
Jessica Cerretani is a Boston-based freelance writer. Visit her jessicadcerretani.com