But just as we need to be more thoughtful about our caloric consumption, delaying gratification of our impulsive urges in order to eat more nutritiously, we need to be more thoughtful about our information consumption, resisting the allure of the mental equivalent of “junk food” in order to allocate our time and attention most effectively. So what can we do?
Recognize the issue. Awareness is rarely sufficient to drive change, but it’s always the necessary first step. How often do you check your phone? Does this get in the way of other interactions? How often do you interrupt focused work to look at your inbox? Does this break your concentration or affect how long it takes to accomplish these tasks? How often do you scan various feeds? Does this result in wasted time? We face the marshmallow test constantly—are you passing or failing?
See the tools around us and exert some control over them. These interruptions are deliberately provoked by the designers of the tools we use. The best tools we use come to feel like features of the landscape or even extensions of our own body; we ultimately fail to see them as tools. What tools are you using? How are they interrupting you? How do they make it easy for you to interrupt yourself? What alarms and alerts might you disable? What limits might you place on the “convenient” features that contribute to these interruptions?
Manage our emotions and cultivate our capacity for mindfulness. No technical interventions will be enough unless we’re also willing to work on ourselves. Emotions are at the heart of this dynamic—the excitement and anxiety generated by new information are the fuel that drives us to interrupt ourselves over and over again, and any changes we seek to make will be contingent on our ability to access, understand and leverage these emotions rather than being impulsively driven by them. As I’ve written before, there’s no simple prescription for emotion management, but there are steps we can take: Regular physical activity and sufficient sleep are critical. Reflecting on our experiences through journaling or coaching conversations can help us understand and make sense of our emotional responses. And perhaps most importantly, even just a few minutes of meditation each day has been shown to have a powerful impact on our ability to sense our emotions and focus our attention.