Are you trapped on the technology treadmill?

Mar 16 2011 by Myra White Print This Article

Does your life involve jumping from email, to tweets, to instant messages, to texts, to voice messages, to incoming mobile calls? Do you feel that you must stop what you are doing every few minutes and take a quick look at that text message clanging on your mobile or check the weather report on the internet or read the email that flashed a few lines on the edge of your screen as it plopped into your inbox?

Does it seem like you've been working hard but you have little to show for all the energy you've expended?

Do you feel stressed and frustrated at the end of the day because you just can't seem to get on top of your life?

Welcome to the technology treadmill - the new virtual world where we all work harder but get less done and where our hopes and dreams are dashed on our high-tech keyboards because we don't have time to pursue them.

Technology has brought us wonderful tools for exchanging information. One can find out almost anything on the internet and we can be in constant communication with everyone we know at all times and even share our personal phone conversations with the person in the next toilet stall (a practice now sweeping the US).

The problem is that for most of us our technological tools now manage us. They teach us to pick up our mobile when we hear there is a message, drop what we are doing when we get email and twiddle away our time browsing the internet.

The question is whether this is making us more productive and happier. Is it enriching our lives, or has it made us into automatons who just do whatever our technological tools demand at the moment.

New research suggests that technological tools are hard on our brains. Our brains get worn out from responding to their incessant demands. Eventually we lose our ability to concentrate on any one task for more than a few minutes which in turn impairs our ability to perform complex tasks and devise creative solutions to problems.

Our memories also start declining because they don't get any exercise anymore. We no longer need to remember phone numbers, addresses or even where someone lives because our technological tools do this for us.

Moreover, research suggests that the brain has trouble storing the disconnected bits and pieces of information that our technological tools deliver because our brain is designed to remember things by associating them with categories or visual images. As a result, the bits and pieces of information that stream into our brains through our various technological tools often end up stored in the wrong place meaning that we can't find them later.

More disturbing is the fact that our technological tools have turned us into chronic multi-taskers. Because answering our mobile or sending an email typically only uses a small amount of our brain power and doesn't require much concentration, we feel like we can do something else at the same time.

However, it turns out that we are deluding ourselves. Constantly switching between even small tasks creates brain overload. Studies in which people's brains are scanned while multi-tasking clearly show that switching between tasks consumes a large portion of the brain's processing capacity.

The result of that there isn't much brain power left over to do the actual tasks which leads poor performance on all of the tasks we are doing at once. Tasks also take longer. Despite the fact that we seem to be working faster when we rapidly switch between tasks, studies find that people produce less. For example, in one study students took 40% longer to solve math problems when they switched back and forth between other tasks.

Studies also show that our levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, increase when we multi-task. Dr. Alan Keene at Australia's Central Queensland University believes that these increased cortisol levels are one of the reasons that we are witnessing more people at the slightest provocation dissolving into fits of rage in their car, at work and sadly at home.

Even more alarming is the fact that we may be racing through our lives without savouring them. Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who is known for his work on the state of flow, writes about how some of the most meaningful and satisfying times in our lives are when we become so absorbed in a task that we lose track of time and become one with the task. It is during these times that our spirits soar and we feel that we are expressing the true essence of who we are.

For those of us on the technological treadmill those times when we can experience the joy of being fully engaged in what we are doing may be rapidly vanishing as we add more and more demanding technological tools to our busy and over-stressed lives.

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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.