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Neuroscience and the Internet: The Productivity Paradox

It’s a typical day at the office. While you wait for a client to log into your weekly video conference call, you scroll through the day's news headlines on your phone. Meanwhile, the email you’re writing to another client sits half finished on your laptop next to you. Suddenly, all your devices vibrate at once with a social media alert. You drop everything to check it, and in the process of doing so, you realize—you're experiencing a full-blown moment of the “productivity paradox.”

We're living in an age where media multi-tasking has become the norm, but sometimes the prevalence of technology at work hinders productivity. How do we know we're not developing bad habits? How can we be sure we're using these tools to our best advantage?

Let's take a look at the neuroscience behind Internet use to gain some insight into what exactly is preventing us from working at our best.

We're Focusing Our Attention in Bursts

Humans crave novelty and intellectual stimulation. And now that many of us are almost permanently plugged in, the opportunities for discovering new information are endless.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry shows that certain areas of the brain light up when using the Internet, particularly the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas. These regions are associated with visual imagery, decision-making and memory. When we go online, we're satisfying our craving for information.

On the other hand, if we're busy investigating endless trails of curiosity online, we might never get to the end of what we're working on. We are no longer in the habit of finishing one task before moving on to the next. Thankfully, with a little bit of prioritizing and self-control at work, we can ensure that we spend our energy productively.

Does the Internet Give Us ADHD?

Media multi-tasking, or using multiple devices at the same time, has been shown to produce actual physical changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, itself connected to rational cognitive functioning. What does that mean? No one really knows. But many neuroscientists believe our brains could evolve over time through increased use of technology.

Since the year 2000 and the advent of smartphone technology, the average person’s attention span has decreased from 12 seconds to 8 seconds. One popular myth says that, since mobile Internet devices infiltrated our daily lives, the average person’s attention span has diminished to less than that of a goldfish.

This is corroborated by another study coming out of the University of California, Los Angeles, which suggests a correlation between increased Internet use and a rising prevalence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If you've ever been concentrating hard at work, only to lose your train of thought entirely when your friend pings you with a funny cat video, you know there might be some truth to this.

The Smartphone Generation May Be Hyper-Focused

While the common understanding is that our attention spans are dwindling, the reality is that Internet-related attention issues are a bit more complex and nuanced than simply labeling them as ADHD. A study conducted by Microsoft shows that people who spend a lot of time on the Internet display more intermittent bursts of high attention. They are better at identifying what they do and don’t want to engage with. They also need less time to process new information and commit things to memory.

According to Dr. Gary Small of UCLA, this phenomenon is particularly observable in young people who have grown up immersed in technology. The current youth generation’s brains are more “malleable, plastic and changing” due to spending more time on the Internet.

Of course, it is difficult to say what these surges in brain activity will mean for future generations of Internet users. The only certain thing is that technology will continue to play a more integrated role in the workplace of the future. What will that workplace look like?

We're Staring into Infinite Possibility

The Internet has been likened to a kind of third Industrial Revolution. Just as the steam engine and electricity each transformed work productivity in their own times, the invention of information technology has changed the way we work today.

Thanks to the digitization of many tasks we used to do manually, what we used to accomplish in a 40 hour work week we can now accomplish in 10 hours. To imaginative entrepreneurs, this opens up a lot of possibilities for what we can create with all our newfound free time.

At the beginning of the Internet Revolution, experts and economists foresaw an unlimited potential for productivity growth. Around-the-clock connectivity means that we can work longer hours and with more flexibility. Instant access to information means things happen much more quickly.

But somewhere in the early 2000’s, productivity growth began to slump. It turns out that it’s harder to finish tasks that are astronomical in scope. It’s hard to work without parameters.

Too Many Options Inhibit Decision-Making

In his TED Talk, The Paradox of Choice, Bill Schwartz argues that the digital era’s proliferation of options—from the types of phone plans we subscribe to, to when and how we get married—gives the illusion of freedom. The Internet promises the infinite because we can go in 100 different directions at once. But the reality is that we can only focus our attention on a limited number of things at a time. Schwartz argues that too many choices actually produce paralysis.

For example, you can have 100 tabs open on your browser to remind yourself that you have 100 things to do. But do the tabs really help you focus, or do they prevent you from delving into the task at hand? Surveys across the United States and the UK show mixed results.

In a UK survey conducted by Webtrate, many workers reported feeling dissatisfied when they realized they were wasting too much time on writing emails or casual browsing.

Many people who spend a lot of time on their computers at their jobs complain they lose their train of thought when answering quick messages that interrupt more involved pieces of work. A lot of people express worry about their own lack of impulse control when it comes to surfing the Internet.

As a solution, some workplaces have chosen to block Facebook from office computers. This sort of imposed limitation on how and when we connect to the Internet might provide some useful structure to an otherwise structureless frontier. Such rules might help people avoid procrastination and stay productive.

High Expectations Are Hard to Meet

The limitless potential offered by the Internet also makes it more likely that we will set impossible standards for ourselves. With a plethora of options available to us, we are more likely to compare our own situations to examples we see in the media, and more likely to regret the decisions we make or dwelling on what "could have been."

The Internet has seduced our imaginations, and the expectations we set for ourself are very high - sometimes to our detriment. In his book, Predictably Irrational, behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains the phenomenon of how too many choices can lead to overall lower satisfaction. We set ourselves up for disappointment when we raise the stakes on unrealistic expectations.

When you are in a situation that you’re not totally satisfied with, who do you hold responsible? For example, when you don't accomplish everything on your to-do list: do you blame yourself? Ariely's observation is that people of the Internet age are more likely to hold themselves responsible when situations don't work out totally the way they want them to. He cites this as one of the reasons that clinical depression has increased in the last generation.

At the same time, for those of us who embrace the infinite possibility promised by Internet technology, the benefits outweigh the risks. Forward-thinking technology entrepreneurs insist that by setting realistic goals and priorities, it's possible to strike a healthy balance. As long as we stay clear about our expectations, we'll be able to media multi-task to our hearts' content AND finish everything on our to-do list.

We're Working Fast but Shallow

We are living in a culture of instant gratification and quick fixes, where the rewards of plowing through a difficult train of thought are losing their luster. Especially in comparison to the appeal of sites like Wikipedia, which offer vast menus of new information at the click of a button.

What does this mean for your working life? It means you’re surrounded by a culture that makes it oh so easy for you to procrastinate on digging into that one really difficult assignment. The one that makes you use your brain. It’s the item on your to-do list you’re avoiding right now by finishing all the easy things first, and also by reading this article.

Are We Losing Analytic Thinking?

A 2012 study of university students revealed that, while students benefit from the wealth of information and resources made readily available by the Internet, they are less likely to show interest in deep thinking and in-depth analysis.

It is interesting to note that most advances in information technology since 2000 have been in the spheres of entertainment, faster communication, and sleeker devices. These are not areas that enhance productivity at all. In fact, sometimes it feels like the entire Internet industry is in a race with itself to communicate better, faster, stronger.

32% of Internet users have been shown to abandon a slow-loading website in 1-5 seconds. This is why Internet companies take great pains to have the speediest connections. Additionally, a lot of research has been done into how Internet readers tend to scan web pages for information. This is why Internet companies put a lot of effort into presenting their key information in the easiest, punchiest, most digestible format possible.

Technology optimists will tell you that this is the sleek and beautiful future—and isn’t the future enticing? But it might be wise to proceed with caution. We aren’t even sure what we're sacrificing when we let go of depth in favor of speed and breadth.

Balancing Technology Use With Other Habits

So how do we optimize the increasing prevalence of connectivity in our daily lives? How do we prevent ourselves from using technology as a distraction or a crutch, when we want to be using it to enhance our capacities to be creative and productive? As we move forward in the twenty-first century, it will become increasingly important to stay mindful of such fine balances.

In the realm of health and education, there are advances currently being made in using computer technology to improve cognitive functioning in middle-aged and older adults. In the Netherlands, a team of researchers are using computer-based games to help elderly folks stay mentally stimulated. Even simple tasks like searching the web can exercise the brain and enhance circuitry in aging adults.

But remember: as we spend more and more time plugged into technology, it's also becoming increasingly important to make sure we spend time away from computers, too. The benefits of physical activity, spending time in nature, social interaction, and reading books—yes, reading good old-fashioned books!—will be just as crucial as ever to maintaining healthy, well-adjusted lifestyles.

So try to set aside some time every day that's “media free.” This could be your morning jog, or it could be cooking a meal with friends or family. Put your phone away and give your loved ones your full attention.

And don't underestimate the cognitive benefits of reading books. Reading fiction has been shown to expand our ability to empathize with others, use our imaginations, and understand opposing points of view. As we advance into the 21st century, where things like virtual reality and threats of drone warfare are complicating how we relate to others, empathy will very likely be a major asset to the Internet entrepreneurs of the future.

In addition to books, practicing any art form, like painting, music or dance, can do wonders for emotional health. So if you have a hobby—it can be anything (really!), like woodworking, yoga, or micro-brewing—don't let it fall by the wayside when work gets crazy. Your hobby might be what keeps you sane.

Technology at Work Today

This is an exciting moment in scientific history where our understanding of the brain is just beginning to tip into extraordinary realms. At the same time, the increasing prevalence of technology at work provides a wonderful opportunity for us to harness our brain power in new ways.

Through continuing to bring our best efforts to work every day, and through practicing good habits, we can overcome the productivity paradox. This might mean imposing more structure onto our schedules, or it might mean turning our phones off when we really need to focus on finishing a task. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, humanity will be fine as long as we remain the master of our technology.

This article is the first in a series about “Neuroscience and the Internet.”  What do you think? We'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below!