Our distracted mind

‘Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.’ Daniel J. Levitin

In his book ‘The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin describes the many challenges our brains face in the modern age of information overload, social media, and multi-tasking. We might feel efficient juggling numerous balls in the air as we complete thousands of small tasks each day, but in fact we’re easily distracted, often quite inefficient, and at the same time increasing our levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Many people complain of feeling under constant time pressure, finding few precious moments to relax and just be. Chronic stress has been implicated as a key factor in a wide range of health and emotional problems. So the question arises – if this way of life is so bad for us, then why are the majority of us in thrall to it?

It turns out that the ‘thousand little sugar-coated tasks’ we rush through are, in fact, quite addictive. Each time we send an email, check our social media updates, look up something on the Internet, or send a text, we stimulate the pleasure- and novelty-seeking parts of our brain, giving ourselves a little hit of endogenous opioid. Before too long, we get used to getting ourselves through the day with the aid of regular opioid hits. Just like the sugar in our food, the boosts provided by these opioids are short-lasting, leaving us more depleted in the long term, but they are also difficult to resist.

In the same way we all make choices about our sugar consumption (some have quit sugar altogether, while others drink litres of soft drink every day, and most fall somewhere between those two extremes), so we can also make choices about how often we allow ourselves to be distracted during the day. Some distractions are inevitable – many jobs don’t allow us to work uninterruptedly, or we may be looking after children or someone with high care needs – yet many distractions we also bring upon ourselves. Levitin quotes research which shows that even just one unread email in our inbox can reduce our effective IQ by 10 percent. It’s in our interest to create times when we can become mindfully absorbed in a task – whether it’s tidying the kitchen after dinner, writing a report for work with the emails and phones turned off, or practising a new skill. We may miss out on the occasional sugar hit of opioids, but will be rewarded by increased efficiency, and the satisfaction which comes with a job well done.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose one task from which you’re easily distracted, and choose to do it mindfully this week. Notice how it feels – in your mind, your body, and emotionally. Is there also anything different about how the task got completed?

Anja Tanhane

Online mindfulness

White flowers on branch

I remember at Uni learning about an experiment by B.F. Skinner where two groups of pigeons had been taught to obtain food rewards by pecking at a button. One group received the reward in a predictable manner – for example, after a certain number of pecks, the food reward would reliably appear. The other group also received food rewards, but on an unpredictable schedule – sometimes one peck would be enough, sometimes it needed many more. When the food rewards for pecking the button were stopped, the first group, with the predictable schedule, quickly stopped trying. The second group, however, never gave up. They just kept pecking and pecking and pecking, to the point of exhaustion. Continue reading “Online mindfulness” »