I'm an addict (and so are you)

Do you ever find it hard to focus on and accomplish the things of greatest importance? You’re not the only one – our ability to focus is under attack and we are losing the battle.

Many of us are pulled by the numerous electronic distractions we have. On our computers there are email pop-ups, many windows open at once and multiple tabs open in web browsers. On our phones we get pinged by emails, texts, social media and prompts from apps. And now, the Apple watch! This doesn’t even count the number of times people interrupt us and the sometimes popcorn-like way in which people bring up topics in meetings. If you watch a movie or a TV show, count the number of seconds before the frame or camera angle changes – you will never get to 10.

Do a search and you will find a plethora of articles about internet addiction. In 2008 China declared internet addiction a clinical disorder. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the official reference for psychological disorders, includes internet addiction as a disorder that needs further study and research. Terms such as “acquired attention deficit disorder” and “electronic cocaine” have been coined.

Whether internet addiction being “officially” considered an addiction is settled or not, being driven to distraction is an issue for many of us; and if not for us, definitely for many of the people we lead. Turns out there is some brain science to the impact on us—our brains are being trained to be distracted.

We crave the stimulation of new information. I’ve read that when something new appears, the brain gets a hit of dopamine—the brain chemical involved in motivation, pleasure and learning. We then want more of that, and begin to seek more and more new things.

When this keeps happening, we begin producing more and more dopamine and the brain becomes desensitized. It then takes an increasing number of new things to get to a level of dopamine to have the sensation we desire. An impact of increased dopamine is reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, leading to reduced control of behavior. Have you ever been surfing the internet, know you should stop to work on the report that is due, and you just keep surfing?

So, what can we do about this? Start with beginning to treat your ability to focus as your most important resource. Consider that the times you and I are at our most effective is when we give our undivided focus to something. Cultivate your ability to focus, build that muscle, retrain your brain.

  • Begin to notice when you find yourself driven to look for something new. An example is when you know you should be working on something and you are doing something else.
  • Make a choice. Intentionally choose what action you will take. At times, this will be a moment-by-moment choice. There are so many distractions in our environment, including our own thoughts, that your focus may not last a long time.
  • Set up your environment to reduce distractions; clean off your desk, get rid of the piles of papers and magazines, move the files off your computer desktop into a folder. Notice the things that distract you and put them away out of sight.
  • Take some time out from electronic devices. Get up from your computer and walk around and talk to people. Go somewhere without your cell phone.
  • Set intentions for what you want to accomplish for the day. You can use your calendar to schedule time for these. Some of you already do this and are very successful at it. Some of us don’t do so well with it.

And, have some patience with yourself. Whether or not this is legitimately considered an addiction, I find it useful to relate to myself that I am an addict. When I feel the pull to seek out something new, I can say, “that’s the addiction” and it becomes easier to go back to focusing on what I am working on.

Let us know what you have to say and what you have found that works for you.