"The Internet is making us stupider!" —"No, smarter!"

There has been quite the back-and-forth in The New York Times between people like Nicholas Carr, whose new book The Shallows, argues that the Internet is making us dumber; and Steven Pinker, who contends that it's making us smarter. The NYT has weighed in with its own editorial, arguing that the Internet is "a global library of fact and data . . . [that can] enrich our lives."

I agree with all of them.

The problem is that our "old" brains are designed to respond to each new interruption. Every time we hear a beep or a click or see a flash or a visual change in our environment, our attention is drawn to that new thing and away from what we were doing. Our devices encourage us to multitask as never before, and so our opportunities to be distracted have multiplied many-fold. People complain about "cyber-loafing" (employees surfing the Internet or texting friends when they're being paid to do something else) and rightly so. It's been estimated that unnecessary interruptions, mainly facilitated by technology, cost U.S. businesses $650,000,000,000 year in lost employee time.

But even motivated employees and people who are working for themselves face ever-mounting challenges with these compelling gadgets. And, of course, this is a great problem for students. When we need to concentrate, there's always the temptation to check that ball-score, connect with that friend, get an update on the news, or hear the latest comedy monologue; and all these things and much, much more are available now, requiring only the click of a button.

Even the gadget boosters agree that it's not easy. Pinker writes:

"The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour."

Would dieters leave boxes of candy around?

This is true.  

But if only it were that easy to be self-disciplined! That's why I conduct workshops and give keynotes to help people cope with these challenges. I first put the audience through mind exercises to help them understand what their brains are up against. Then I help them develop strategies that make the temptations less accessible and less alluring. For example:

  • Bookmark that enticing but irrelevant web posting for later.
  • Arrange for urgent or emergency contacts to reach you in ways that don't force you to be on-call 24/7 on all devices.
  • Set your email client to check for new mail every half hour or hour rather than every minute.

After all, if we were on a diet, would we want open containers of candy in every room of our house? And would we want the pizza shop to make hourly free deliveries? Getting things done these days requires a bit more planning and self-discipline than it used to.

As I say in my Letter to the Editor of The New York Times (6.13.2010),

"If we're left to our own devices, we may Twitter our lives away."

For more strategies to counteract digital distractions, see Conquer CyberOverload.

About the Author

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D.

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress.

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