Last week I spent a week on a silent meditation retreat: no phones, screens, reading, writing, or even eye contact. There was nothing to distract me except my own thoughts and feelings, which meant I had plenty of distractions. Although these rules might sound onerous, they actually had a wonderfully calming effect. It was a detox for my brain, and by the end, I could have very happily carried on under the same restrictions.
What a shock to the system to come back into the world of everything vying for your attention all the time! The most jarring thing was returning to people having a conversation with you whilst also looking at their phone or laptop screen. It feels like you’re communicating through treacle. They’re half asleep to what you’re saying as they drift in and out of paying attention. It’s a deeply unsatisfying way to interact.
It reminded me of the recent article in the Guardian Why the modern world is bad for your brain which points out that people who think they can multi-task are actually deluding themselves. The brain is in fact switching very quickly between tasks, and there is a cognitive cost.
When you multi-task, production of the stress hormone cortisol and the fight or flight hormone adrenaline increases, which over-stimulates your brain, makes you feel more anxious and uses up a lot of energy. Also, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for concentration, ironically, has a novelty bias, and so loves getting distracted by new emails, texts and notifications.
One experiment found that knowing you have an unread email in your inbox while you are trying to concentrate on a task can reduce your IQ by ten points. It’s been shown the cognitive losses from multi-tasking are worse than the losses from pot-smoking.
I used to be totally addicted to checking my phone, emails and facebook, but meditating daily gradually reduced my desire to do so. Turning off all notifications on both my mobile and laptop helped a lot as I could really feel the pull of knowing there was something new to look at, even if it was only an email from a mailing list.
I’ve also been experimenting with choosing just one task to work on for a set period of time, say 45 minutes and then having a break. I find it works best when I do it with someone else at the same time: we tell each other what we plan to do and then ask each other if we did it. Sometimes I feel like I get more done in two or three sessions like that than in a whole day of flitting between tasks. It’s so easy to slip back into multi-tasking though! It’s like having a big box of chocolates on your desk and trying not to eat them.
So even if you don’t fancy a week of silence, I thoroughly recommend a digital detox, whether it’s only for the course of one meal, or for a weekend. The urge to have your phone back usually melts away leaving a greater sense of calm and an ability to experience what is happening in the here and now. If that seems like a tall order, maybe you’re as much of an addict in denial as I was!