Email is killing us: Reclaim your mind from technology

The world is a more distracting place than ever -- but it's possible to win your attention span back. Here's how

Published August 17, 2013 8:00PM (EDT)

   (<a href=''>ollyy</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(ollyy via Shutterstock)

Excerpted from "The Distraction Addiction"

On the western edge of the ancient city of Kyoto, Japan, on the slope of Mount Arashiyama (literally “Stormy Moun­tain”), stands the Iwatayama Monkey Park. The park has winding paths and fine views of Kyoto, but the main attraction is the tribe of about a hundred and forty macaques who live there. The mon­keys of Iwatayama are famously gregarious, playful, and, occasionally, crafty. Like all members of the Macaca genus, they combine sociability and intelligence. They play with their kin, watch one another’s young, learn new skills from one another, and even have distinctive group habits.

Some develop a mania for bathing, snowball-making, washing food, fishing, or using seawater as a seasoning. Iwatayama macaques are known for flossing and for playing with stones. This has led some scientists to argue that macaques have a culture, something we’ve tradi­tionally thought of as distinctly human. They’re also humanlike in their natural curiosity and cunning: one second, you’re watching one do something cute, and the next second, his friends are making off with the bag of food you bought at the park’s entrance.

They’re like humans in one other way. For all their smarts, nothing keeps their attention for very long. The mountainside gives them a fan­tastic view of one of the world’s most historic cities, but it doesn’t impress them. They keep up a constant chatter, a running monologue of inconsequence. The macaques are living examples of the Buddhist concept of the monkey mind, one of my favorite metaphors for the everyday, undisciplined, jittery mind. As tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa explains, the monkey mind is crazy: it “leaps about and never stays in one place. it is completely restless.”

The monkey mind’s constant activity reflects a deep restlessness: monkeys can’t sit still because their minds never stop. Likewise, most of the time, the human mind delivers up a constant stream of con­sciousness. Even in quiet moments, minds are prone to wandering. Add a constant buzz of electronics, the flash of a new message landing in your in-box, the ping of voicemail, and your mind is as manic as a monkey after a triple espresso. The monkey mind is attracted to today’s infinite and ever-changing buffet of information choices and devices. It thrives on overload, is drawn to shiny and blinky things, and doesn’t distinguish between good and bad technologies or choices.

The concept of the monkey mind appears throughout Buddhist teachings — one small indicator of the fact that the mind and its rela­tionship to the world have been studied deeply for thousands of years. Every religion has contemplative practices, calls to use silence and solitude to quiet the mind. In John Drury’s introductory note to the Anglican Matins and Evensong, he exhorts worshippers “to be patient and relaxed enough to allow a long tradition to have its say” and “allow our own thoughts and feelings to become closer to us than life outside admits.” Only then can one fully enter “the cool and ancient order of the services which gives a space and a frame, as well as cues, for reflec­tions on our regrets and hopes and gratitudes.” Catholic monastics treat meditation as preparing the mind to receive God’s wisdom; the busy mind cannot hear the divine. in Buddhism, though, mental discipline is more an end in itself, rather than just a means to an end. The everyday mind is like churning water; learn to make it still, like the mirror-flat surface of a calm lake, Buddhists say, and its reflection will show you everything.

A few miles away from Iwatayama, a robotics laboratory at Kyoto University houses a robot controlled by another monkey, a rhesus named Idoya. Incredibly, Idoya isn’t in Japan; she lives in North Caro­lina, in a neuroscience laboratory at Duke University, and her brain is connected to the robot via the Internet. The laboratory is run by neuro­scientist Miguel Nicolelis, who, to make things just a bit more global, was born and educated in Brazil. Nicolelis has been studying the brain and how the brain changes as it learns executive functions; he’s also developed a specialty in what scientists call brain-computer interface (BCi) technologies. today you can buy primitive brain-wave readers that can control video games, and scientists are mapping brain func­tions and testing the brain’s ability to control complex objects through BCis. Eventually, they hope, BCis will be used to route brain signals around damaged nerves, restoring body control to people with spinal-cord injuries or neurodegenerative disorders.

Idoya is the latest in a series of monkeys Nicolelis has worked with. Over the previous decade, he and his team demonstrated that a mon­key with electrodes implanted in its brain could operate joysticks or robotic arms with its mind. Brain scans showed something remarkable: the neurons in the monkey’s frontoparietal lobe — the section that con­trolled the animal’s arms — fired when the monkey operated a robot arm. In other words, the monkey’s brain stopped treating the robot arm as a tool, as something that it used but that was clearly separate from itself. The brain remapped its picture of the monkey’s body to incorporate the robot arm. At the neural level, the distinction between the monkey’s arms and the robot arm blurred. As far as the monkey’s brain was concerned, monkey arms and robot arm were all part of the same body. Nicolelis and his colleagues in Japan implanted electrodes in the section of Idoya’s brain that regulated walking; they then taught her to walk on a treadmill and studied how her brain’s neurons fired as she walked. When she obeyed commands to speed up or slow down, she was rewarded with food. They then put a video monitor in front of the treadmill. Instead of showing The View or CNBC, however, the screen showed Idoya a live video feed of CB-1, the human-size robot in Kyoto. (CB-1 itself is a prodigy. equipped with four video cameras, gyroscopic stabilizers, and hands that can grasp objects. It can hold a bat, swing at baseballs, and learn manual tasks by imitating humans.)

When Idoya started walking while looking at the Kyoto robot on the monitor, the electrodes in her brain picked up the signals generated by the neurons that control locomotion. The signals were transmitted over the Internet to CB-1, which, following those same signals, stepped with her. The better she controlled the robot, the more treats she got. After an hour of Idoya walking and munching Cheerios, the scientists switched off her treadmill. Still focused on the screen, the monkey stopped walking — but she kept CB-1 on course, and for the next sev­eral minutes, she continued to make it walk. Once again, Nicolelis’s team had shown that a primate brain could learn to directly control robots —and, in the process, that brain would start to treat the robot as an extension of its own body. Brain scans showed that Idoya’s brain performed exactly the same way whether she was using her own flesh-and-fur legs or the electronic-and-plastic ones. As far as her brain was concerned, there was no longer any difference between the two.

Idoya and the monkeys of Iwatayama represent two different sides of the human mind, two contrasting relationships with information technology, and two futures. The chattering monkey is the untutored, undisciplined reactive mind, the mind that loves stimulation but doesn’t hold a thought. The cyborg monkey represents a mind that isn’t overwhelmed by technology, because it no longer experiences the tech­nologies it uses as separate from itself, as requiring conscious effort and attention. A mix of deliberate practice, tinkering and experimenting, and neural rewiring have created an extended mind in which brain, body, and tools are entangled and work together effortlessly.

For too long, we’ve left the chattering monkey in charge of our technologies, and then we wonder why things go bad. We want to be like the cyborg monkey (albeit not as hairy and without the electrodes). We want that same capability to use complicated technologies without thinking about them, without experiencing them as burdens and dis­tractions. We want our technologies to extend our minds and augment our abilities, not break up our minds.

Such control is within our reach. Rather than being forced into a state of perpetual distraction, with all the unhappiness and discontent such a state creates, we can approach information technologies in a way that is mindful and nearly effortless and that contributes to our ability to focus, be creative, and be happy.

It’s an approach I call contemplative computing.

The term sounds oxymoronic. What could be less contemplative than today’s technology-intensive environment? What could possibly be less conducive to a clear, meditative state than interactions with computers, cell phones, Facebook, and Twitter?

Contemplative computing isn’t enabled by a technological break­through or scientific discovery. You don’t buy it. You do it. It’s based on a blend of new science and philosophy, some very old techniques for managing your attention and mind, and a lot of experience with how people use (or are used by) information technologies. It shows you how your mind and body interact with computers and how your attention and creativity are influenced by technology. It gives you the tools to redesign your relationships with devices and the Internet, to make them work better for you. It’s a promise that you can construct a healthier, more balanced relationship with information technology.

To get a sense of how that can happen, let’s look at what digital life is like for many of us —and then at what it could be like.

Imagine a monday morning. You reach over to the nightstand, grab your smartphone, and switch off the alarm. You rub your eyes with one hand and open the phone’s e-mail program with the other. You’re not really awake; you do it automatically. You watch the icon spin as the phone connects to your e-mail server.

Nineteen messages in your in-box. Most are automatically gener­ated newsletters, coupons, daily deals, or social-media updates; six are from colleagues up even earlier than you. You answer one, start another, and realize you’re not sure what to say, so you flip over to the Web browser and check the news. You’ll finish the message later. European bankers arguing over the terms of the latest bailout ... another naS­daQ flash crash ... roundup of blog posts commenting on the suicide of a cast member of a reality-TV show ... Suddenly you realize it’s been twenty minutes. Gotta get up.

On the train to work, you look out the window and see a driver holding his phone and steering wheel in the same hand as he uses the phone to navigate, and another person steering with one hand and tex­ting with the other. It makes driving while talking on your cell phone seem downright cautious. The police should give out more tickets to distracted drivers, you think, but as more cruisers are equipped with laptops, more police are getting distracted too.

Work turns out to be one of those days: these coworkers need num­bers, those colleagues need your feedback; can you help with this prob­lem, explain these options, talk to this person? It’s one thing when there’s lots of input directed toward one goal, but this multitasking is something else entirely. You’re used to dealing with a constant stream of interruptions, but today, even your interruptions get interrupted. It’s hard to say no, and it’s hard to get back on task. After each interrup­tion, you need a couple minutes to remember what you were doing, to gather your thoughts and start again.

By late afternoon, you’re finally ready to print out your work. You hit print, and an error message appears: you need to update your printer driver. When you click okay, a minute goes by, and then there’s another message: The latest driver isn’t compatible with the old version of your operating system. You or your it department need to update that too. Half an hour later, you restart your computer and finally print out your work. The experience is frustrating, but it’s not at all unusual. According to a 2010 Harris interactive poll (sponsored by tech giant intel), com­puter users spend an average of forty-three minutes every day — five hours a week, or eleven days a year — waiting for computers to start up, shut down, load software, open files, connect to the Internet.

On your way to meet a friend for a drink after work, you pass by people who are focused on their cell phones and have trouble tearing their attention away from their screens. You feel your phone buzzing in your pants pocket, but when you reach to answer it, there’s no phone there. You check your other pockets, worried that you’ve lost it. The last time it happened, you felt like part of your brain had been shut off. But it’s a false alarm: it’s in your jacket.

During drinks, you and your friend each get the occasional text. Con­versation flows and trails off as you each look at your phone, nearly finish a thought as you start typing. One message from an old ex is especially weird: it’s all garbled, and it’s the middle of the night in that time zone. “I’ve heard of that happening,” your friend says, not looking up from her phone. “She’s probably sleep-texting.” Really? “It’s like sleepwalking”— type-type-type—“except you” — type-type-type — “you know, text people.”

It makes sense that some of us would start texting in our sleep. After all, information technologies and the Internet have thoroughly insinu­ated themselves into our everyday lives. Worldwide in 2010, according to the International Telecommunications Union, 640 million homes, housing 1.4 billion people, had at least one computer in the house; 525 million of those households and 900 million people were connected to the Internet. In the United States, about 90 million American house­holds (80 percent of the U.S. total) had PCs and Internet access, and nearly half of those had two or more computers at home; 70 million had a game platform like Wii, PlayStation, or Xbox; 45 million house­holds shared some 96 million smartphones; 7 million had tablet com­puters. Sixty percent of households had three Internet-enabled devices; a quarter had five.

Over the course of a typical day, you send and receive an average of 110 messages. You check your phone thirty-four times, visit Facebook five times, spend at least half an hour liking things and messaging friends. Like most people, your smartphone is more smart than phone: for every hour you spend talking to someone, you spend five hours surfing the Web, checking e-mail, texting, tweeting, and social network­ing. Nielsen and the Pew Research Center have found that Americans spend an average of 60 hours a month online, or 720 hours a year. That’s the equivalent of 90 eight-hour days per year. Twenty of those days are spent in social networking sites, 38 viewing content on news sites, YouTube, blogs, and so on, and 32 doing e-mail. If maintaining your online life feels like a job, maybe that’s because it is.

The increase in the number of digital devices we own and the amount of time we spend with them doesn’t mark just a quantitative shift. It’s a qualitative one too. Digital technologies and services are entwined with our everyday lives, whether we like it or not. As one Sili­con Valley engineer put it, “Computers used to be part of my daily life. Now they’re part of my daily minute.” A veteran of Google and Face­book, even she feels the change; like many of us, she’s aware of infor­mation technology playing a larger role in the casual and necessary things we do to maintain our homes and family and social lives. People who spend all day with computers used to be called hackers. Today, that’s all of us.

Digital life can be great, but it also has a price. Keeping up with everything that everyone’s sharing can become overwhelming — not just the sheer volume of material, but also the obligation to stay on top of it. These are your friends (or “friends”), and if you don’t keep check­ing in on what they share, you might miss something. The little buzz from a new text message or e-mail is nice, but it’s also disappointing when you hit refresh and nothing’s there.

Sometimes the problem feels bigger. Having to stay focused when everyone wants your attention and the world — as well as your friends — throws a constant stream of distractions at you is hard. It’s easy to get sidetracked at work by one thing, then another, and then have real trouble finishing the task you started. Recent surveys and field studies have found that a majority of workers have only three to fifteen min­utes of uninterrupted working time in a day, and they spend at least an hour a day — five full weeks a year — dealing with distractions and then getting back on task. each little thing you respond to feels urgent and gives you that sense of being busy, although you have the sneaking suspicion that all the interference and overlaps make you less produc­tive. But when everyone looks perpetually busy, being overloaded is a badge of honor; working too hard is the new normal. Multitasking makes you feel like you’re working even when it’s counterproductive.

Organizations pay a price for their employees’ chronic distraction. In a 1996 global survey of managers, two-thirds thought that constant distraction and information overload affected their quality of life. More recent studies estimated that in 2010, information overload cost U.S. businesses about 28 billion hours of wasted time and $1 trillion, and this was a year when the nation’s gross domestic product was $14.6 tril­lion. The average worker spends half an hour a day troubleshooting devices or dealing with network problems. Over the course of a year, that’s fifteen workdays lost to computer problems.

The constant buzz, the need to keep up with the never-ending rush of information, and the efforts to divide and spread one’s time and attention ever thinner are starting to take their toll. It’s getting harder to concentrate when you really need to. You reach the bottom of a page and can’t always remember what you just read. Not only do you have trouble getting back to that task you started an hour ago, but you have to struggle to remember what that task was. You forget things on your mental shopping list. At home, sometimes you head to a room to do something and forget what you meant to do by the time you get there.

Now let’s imagine a different monday.

Monday morning. You reach over to the nightstand, grab your smartphone, and switch off the alarm. You don’t check your mail or the online news just yet. After a few months of evaluating your mood when you check your mail first thing, you know you’ll have a better day if you wait. Besides, you want just a little more time offline. Late Satur­day night, after setting up your coffeemaker, you put your phone on silent and stowed the laptop and tablet in a desk drawer. Six days of the week you’re connected; now you and some friends spend Sundays doing intensely analog things. Sometimes you head for hiking trails or cook; a couple of them have rediscovered knitting and painting. This Sunday was taken up by baking and reading. After a few hours at the market and some measuring and mixing, you had enough coffee cake to get you through the rest of the eight-hundred-page novel penned by the latest writer to burst from Brooklyn’s literary scene.

When you do check your mail on your phone, you open the pro­gram, then put the phone screen-down on the table while you get cof­fee. It’s a little act of resistance: I’ll get to you, you’re saying, when I choose. There’s not much in your in-box, even after thirty-six hours away: you’ve turned off every notification, unsubscribed from all but the most useful newsletters, and have an aggressive set of filters that shunt nonessential mail out of your in-box before you see it.

At work, you need to be heads down, regardless of your colleagues’ immediate needs. Yes, it’s important to be responsive, but a frantic request isn’t the same as a high-priority one, and you have work to do. So you switch off your phone and fire up a program that blocks your Internet access. For two hours, you’ve got no external distractions and no opportunity for self-distraction: e-mail, Facebook, Pinterest, Ama­zon, your colleagues —they all have to wait. if coworkers need some­thing, they know where you are, but by making people invest a little effort to get your attention, you filter out the ones who want your time but don’t really need it.

Now you have a single task, which you think of as kind of like a game: produce this many words, or write this much code, or get through this many accounts. After a while, your mind settles into a groove. You feel a bit like a jazz drummer: totally engaged but on beat, not a movement wasted.

After two hours, you switch everything back on. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you focus on one goal. It often still involves multitasking, but it’s the sort of multitasking that converges on a single point, not the kind that pulls you in different directions.

In the evening, you give yourself half an hour to see what your friends are doing on Facebook and twitter. Occasionally, you pare down your list of friends. Your timeline is less cluttered, because you’re more careful about whom you give your attention to. In real life, your circle of friends contracts and expands, and the amount of time you can devote to people is constantly changing. You write fewer messages and check in less frequently, and you try to post things that are well composed and thoughtful. Your aim isn’t to get noticed or to accumulate lots of followers. Being online is about connecting meaningfully with people, about conserving your attention and respecting your friends’ minds, not about killing time or engaging with media for its own sake. More generally, you try to use information technologies as mindfully as possible. You observe what you do, see how different practices affect your productivity and mood, then take up better practices and discard obsolete ones. But when things go well, you can turn off that mental camera, feel a device go from a tool to an extension of yourself, and become completely absorbed in the moment.

Relating to and using technologies this way — practicing contem­plative computing, in other words — requires understanding and apply­ing four principles.

The first is our relationships with information technologies are incredibly deep and express unique human capacities. It sometimes seems that technology threatens to reduce us all to scary, soulless man-machine cyborgs like the Borg and the terminator. But as Andy Clark, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Edinburgh University, argues, we’re really “natural-born cyborgs,” forever seeking to extend our bodies and cognitive abilities through technology. In fact, it’s best not to see the mind as something confined to the brain or even the body; it’s useful to think of oneself as having an “extended mind” (to use Clark and David Chalmers’s term) made up of overlapping parts that link brain, senses, body, and objects. Today’s information technologies, I contend, cause us pain not because they’re supplanting our normal cognitive abilities, which have always been flexible and mobile, but because they are often poorly designed and thoughtlessly used; they’re like limbs that we can’t bring under control.

The second big idea is the world has become a more distracting place — and there are solutions for bringing the extended mind back under control. Contemplative spaces are disappearing as quickly as tropical forests, work and life are becoming more frenetic, and mod­ern technologies present challenges to one’s ability to concentrate that may be unique. But humans have always had to deal with distraction and lack of focus — and for thousands of years, they have been culti­vating techniques that effectively address them. In asia, Buddhist and Tantric meditation, Japanese Zen, and Korean Son and yoga have all evolved to tame the distractible, chattering, undisciplined monkey mind. Neuroscientists, psychologists, and therapists have all observed that meditation practices can have a powerful effect on the brain; they can sharpen physical abilities and help deal with a host of psychological problems. Contemplative practices offer more than just a way to con­trol the monkey mind or curb compulsive multitasking. They can also be adapted to allow you to regain control of your extended mind.

The third big idea is it’s necessary to be contemplative about tech­nology. You have to look closely at how you interact with information technologies and how you think about those interactions in order to understand how your extended mind develops and works. Our interac­tions with information technologies — with the outer reaches of our extended minds — are shaped by a variety of factors: the designs of devices and interfaces, the ways and contexts in which we use devices, and our mental models about the interactions and ourselves. Those models often carry unexamined assumptions about how information technologies work and how we work that are detrimental to us.

The fourth big idea is you can redesign your extended mind. Understanding the extended mind, having a better grasp of how to choose and use technology, and being familiar with contemplative practices let you find ways to be calmer and more purposeful when using information technology. It helps you be more powerful in exer­cising your extended mind and more deliberate in strengthening it. By understanding how all these pieces fit together, you can be contempla­tive through technology — and, in the process, regain your ability to deal with challenges, think deeply, and be creative.

Contemplative computing isn’t just a philosophical argument. It’s theory and practice. It’s a thousand little methods, mindful habits informed by the four principles. Guidelines for checking e-mail in non-distracting ways. Rules for using Twitter and Facebook that encourage thoughtfulness and kindness. Ways of holding —literally holding —a smartphone so it commands less of your attention. Techniques for observing and experimenting with your technology practices. Methods for restoring your capacity to focus.

Information technologies are so pervasive, so much a part of work and home, so thoroughly embedded in modern life, it can be hard to know where to push back first. A good choice is to begin where many contemplative practices start. With breathing.

Excerpted from "The Distraction Addiction" by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Copyright 2013, Little, Brown and Co. Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.

By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang