Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Multitasking, Ritalin and online mindfulness


I have watched a documentary about 'our distracted brain'. I hardly dare to say it outloud but in between watching the documentary I was chatting on Skype, answering emails. Nevertheless I enjoyed it and it made me think about singletasking and focus. It is interesting that I still see myself as a very focussed person but I know my habits have changed a lot since I'm working a lot online. I really think that I can multitask at times and that this is very efficient. I will try to improve this by being more aware of when something needs my full attention. However, I am good in focussing I believe because I was always capable of studying with the radio on. When there is a party, I only know what the person I was talking to was saying and missed everything else in the room.

1. Multitasking only works for routine tasks 
A wonderful multitask exercise is to count from 1-10 outloud. Thereafter, say the alphabet from a-j. Then try to combine the two: A1, B2, C3, etc. You'll find that it takes very long to count in the last exercise because combining the two is more complex. With complex tasks, it is not efficient to multitask. Multitasking works especially if one of the tasks can be performed routinely. Therefore, many people think that they can drive and phone. This is also true in itself, however, driving and phone becomes problematic when the driving gets tough, then you should focus all attention on the road. There are many situations where multitasking is OK and can work smoothly, eg driving itself is multitasking - you have to worry about traffic, foot pedals, turning etc. Multitasking works only with more complex tasks if you are a supertasker. However, this is only a small group of people (2% of the population). Furthermore it is a pity, you can not train multitasking.

2. The influence of social media - we get more and more stimuli We now have to deal with much more media stimuli as before. The information that we can swallow (but not digest?) has grown tremendously. In social media, f you've been absent from Facebook or Twitter for a whole day you have the feeling that you are missing something, there are many new messages. You got to go to learn that it is never 'finished'. In the end you have to learn to balance between being distracted and concentrate and focus amidst all those stimuli. I have to say that I am really relaxed. I follow so many people on Twitter that I simply dip in when I have time. I never feel like reading all the messages.

3. How do you force yourself to single-task? With all the social media stimuli, it is much harder to force yourself to single-task. The single-tasking is more difficult nowadays because you have to turn off all distractions. People with lots of dopamine in their brains can concentrate well. The Ritalin / Concerta medicines prescribed for ADD-ers ensure that more dopamine is available in your frontal cortex so that you can focus better. The number of prescribed pills for ADD has lately tripled over the past five years. But other students are already sometimes taking Ritalin pills to study well. A survey of 1,500 students in the Netherlands indicates that approximately 2-3% does take the pills to improve their capacity to concentrate.

4. And if you want single-task without taking Ritalin? For those of us who want to improve single-tasking without Ritalin, there are other possibilities.
  • Mindfulness training and meditation. These are forms to learn to shut your brain or part of your brain down. You learn to concentrate better. What you do with mindfulness is give your brains a rest.
  • Turning all the stimuli in the form of bleeps, pop-ups etc. off. Turn off your phone, email notifications off. Use special programs like MacFreedom to block your internet if you can't control yourself and know yourself.. 
  • Take control over your time back into your own hands. Through better planning you can focus better. Or use the pomodoro technique to concentrate. 
  • Read from paper (this advice will not be a fun one for organizations that just introduced the paperless office :). The advantage of reading from paper read is that there is no distraction. You may choose to read a paper book or article so you can focus more easily. I sometimes go downstairs with a printed article to read as a sort of mental break in my work. 
  • Unplug. Make sure you find a balance in your offline life. Go into a digital detox. Or like Clay Shirky- unplug your students while you are lecturing. 
5. Does our brain change as a result of all the media stimuli? Our brain is overloaded with daily whatsapp, emails and tweets. We get a lot of information and often we respond quickly. What does this do to us and with our brains? Does it changes our brain and will our children's ability to read a longer text suffer? "I am convinced that our brain is changing" said Roshan Cools in the documentary. Our brain is plastic, flexible. Think for example of what happens with addiction to drugs; as a result of heroin or cocaine entering our body, the brains change. The brains learn to cope with drugs. This demonstrates the plasticity of your brains of an individual. We adapt to our environment. Everything we learn is changing our brains. Whether and how this influences ithe brains of future generations is not yet known. It is likely that the brain adapts to the circumstances, but it is quite possible that the brain will become better at focussing among all those messages.

6. Let's not ignore the art of dialogue .. Sherry Turkle is wrestling with the same questions. She is a psychologist and excited about the potential of social media in the hope that it helps us advance in learning about our online identity. At the same time she warns in her TED talk for short messages and the effect on our communication. She is excited about the new opportunities, but they also see the bizarre appeal of smartphones. People go online during a meeting but also during funerals. Parents send mails during breakfast. She warns of the effect on our way of reflecting. She calls it the 'goldilocks' effect. We communicate mainly in small, short messages via SMS, tweets, facebook and LinkedIn status updates. If we are not careful we are losing the art of conversation and really engage in dialogue. If we loose the art of dialogue forever we are not on the right track.

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