Your computer - friend or foe?

Dec 24 2007 by Myra White Print This Article

Is your computer making you more efficient and productive or is it creating so much stress in your life that your brain no longer performs at its best?

Despite the fact that computers make our lives easier by performing many valuable tasks with greater precision than we, as mere mortals, could ever hope to achieve, they have a major down-side. They can stress and tax our brains in ways that limit our creativity and reduce our ability to perform at our highest levels.

One of the biggest problems with computers is that they are both demanding and rigid. They insist that we communicate with them their way. If we don't enter the precise set of mouse clicks or keystrokes in the exact order that they want, they refuse to budge. No matter how much we protest and hurl profanities at them, they just stare back at us or display some obscure message that provides no clue as to what they want.

Our brains weren't designed to deal with this type of treatment. The frustration and anger that we feel can lead our brains to revert to the primitive "fight or flight" state that the brain enters when it faces danger. In this state our brain begins acting from its gut rather than using its higher level processing centers that are the source of our creativity and rational powers.

As a result, we lose track of the big picture. Instead of being resourceful, we begin making mistakes and bad decisions.

A second problem with computers is that they overload our brains by continually interrupting us with new email or doing things like pointing out minor clerical mistakes. We can be totally absorbed in a task only to have our attention hijacked by a red line that says we just misspelled a word or the computer may decide to do some innovative formatting on our document that we definitely don't want.

Computers can also lure us into the world of multi-tasking. It's hard to resist the idea that we can competently do something else at the same time that we are mindlessly making mouse-clicks even though research shows that we just end up doing both tasks poorly.

The endless distractions provided by computers and our incessant multi-tasking flood our brains with so many little pieces of meaningless information that our brains can become overwhelmed. Instead of fully focusing on what we are trying to do, our attention becomes fragmented.

According to Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatrist and author of Driven to Distraction, if we continue to work this way day after day, our brains lose the ability to fully focus our attention and we develop what he has labeled "attention deficit trait."

This condition, which is becoming an epidemic, makes us perpetually feel distracted, impatient, disorganized and overwhelmed by our work. Our performance levels on important tasks also drop with attention deficit trait because fully focusing our attention is critical to tapping into our brain's higher functions.

Research shows that when people are able to fully focus on one task, their brains automatically screen out distractions and they become more creative and deliver their best performances. Time slows down for them and what they are doing becomes effortless and joyful.

So what can you do to stop your computer interfering with your brain's ability to perform at its highest levels?

A first step is to divide your work into two piles: tasks that require higher level brain functions and those that are mindless. Once you've reduced your work to these two simple piles, your brain should be less distracted and you can begin thinking creatively about how you can keep your computer from overloading your brain. Here are a few ideas:

Hire an administrative assistant to handle your email and the other mindless computer tasks that eat up your time and brain power. Private individuals in countries like India and China are often willing to do many administrative tasks for low hourly rates.

Reconstruct your work so that you minimize the use of your computer. Do your thinking and planning before you turn on your computer. In addition, where possible outsource the final document formatting and corrections.

Finally, control your desire to buy the latest piece of software. New software or upgrading current software can be a huge investment of time and quickly overload your brain. Most come with so many new options that figuring out how to use them could distract you for days.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.

Older Comments

I could say bu a few names, but the article in The Economist is saying it all: desktop now has ten times the number-crunching power of the fastest machine on earth in 1983â€'and widespread, given that the world's 3 billion or so mobile phones are, in effect, pocket computers. But although computers have become cheaper, more capable and more commonplace, they have made much less progress when it comes to ease of use. Their potential remains tantalisingly out of reach for people who find their control systems, or “user interfaces”, too complex. And even people who have no difficulty navigating menus, dialogue boxes and so on, might use computers more productively if their interfaces were better.

It's an interface designed by engineers for engineers,” he says. Steven Kyffin, a senior researcher at Philips, a consumer-electronics giant based in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, concedes that computer programmers and engineers, himself included, are often guilty of designing complicated systems packed with too many features. “We're compelled by complexity,” Mr Kyffin says. “There's a point where humanity just can't handle it.” Tellingly, the field of interface design even has an unwieldy name: it is known as “human-computer interaction”, or HCI.

I.M.Manzzo RibeirĂŁo Preto, Brasil

I fully agree with the distraction trait which must also include surfing in lieu of working. One thing not touched upon in this article is the actual effects of the computer environment on our brains and minds and how we think. I have recently gone back to pen and paper for first drafts. My mind feels free and thoughts seem to come from a different place. Nice to feel productive and not chained to a bit of hardwear. There is some thing to be said of the effect of hard drives and their electromagnetic fields and WIFI atmosphere in both the work place and at our home stations. Lots of controversy, yet anyone heard of the electrical whispering effect of human cells let alone the more subtle effects on the aura?

Peter Tadd Cascais, Portugal