Quick — how often do you refresh your newsfeed? Or check email or social media?
If something happened in the last half hour and you’re not aware of it, do you feel out of the loop?
I’ve spent much of my career working with the press, so it’s been my mission to stay on top of things. I’ll admit I’m a “first responder,” although this can sometimes get in the way of deeper work that needs concentration.
If you’ve ever found yourself going down an Internet rabbit hole when you’re supposed to be doing something else, I’m sure you can relate.
It’s How You’re Wired
According to scientists, information addiction is real. And it’s a perfect outlet for procrastination, says occupational therapist and writer Brian Daignault (www.typeofbrian.com), who admits he’s addicted to the immediately available mental stimulation the Internet offers in the form of ever-changing information.
If this sounds familiar, you may wonder how you became addicted to something so time consuming — and potentially destructive. And how do you recover for the sake of productivity?
The answer to both questions, says Daignault, is neuroplasticity. This field studies ways in which the brain changes (for better or worse) in response to a repeated experience. Brain synapses may strengthen or weaken over time.
This is one of my favorite topics, and I’m intrigued by the amazing work being done in this arena at the Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute at West Virginia University. I’ve attended an onsite session at the Institute and witnessed demonstrations of the various technologies they’re using.
“That’s just the way he’s wired,” is a phrase we often hear. The good news is that we don’t have to accept this anymore. Current research shows we can change the way our brain neurons fire by employing repetitive behaviors that lay down new neural pathways in the brain. There’s a saying that “neurons that wire together fire together.”
Shiny Objects Distract Us
“My first encounter with the Internet was transformative,” relays Daignault. “As I clicked away, my brain thought, ‘This is new, and this is awesome!’” No wonder it released some dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter often referred to as one of the “happy hormones.”
“That motivated me to seek the rush of unexpected discovery again and again,” explained Daignault. “As hours of web surfing went by, I became less tolerant of enduring boring, stressful tasks — and began choosing distraction over productivity.”
Bingo! Unknowingly, Daignault had wired his brain for procrastination. The good news, he relays, is he can learn himself out of procrastination the same way he learned himself into it — by taking small, consistent actions that offer his brain a reward.
You can do the same thing. Realizing you’re going to procrastinate from time to time, you can take steps to overcome Internet-fueled procrastination.
Your Emotional Toolbox
Your smartphone and the Internet will demand your attention subconsciously. You’ve trained your brain for that, as explained in the earlier example.
Here are a few tips from my personal experience and Daignault’s research to help stem that tide:
- Put your phone in another room, with notifications and sounds turned off.
- Prioritize what is important.
- Focus on ONE thing at a time.
- Jump in.
- Take a pre-planned break. Don’t check your phone, though.
- CYA: Celebrate Your Accomplishments.
While prioritizing, you may feel some pangs of discomfort. Pay attention to them. Your emotions are a key indicator of why you’re procrastinating. Maybe you think you’re unable to do something — or you just don’t want to deal with it.
Dive in to tackle this one area. Let go of your expectations and judgments. The hardest part of any project is getting started.
In terms of neuroplasticity, the goal is not only to finish a task, but to make it easier to be productive in the future. When you complete a difficult task, you’ll bring about those positive feelings needed to rewire your brain. Repetition is key.
No multitasking is allowed in this zone! Focus on one part of the task at a time — so you don’t get overwhelmed. Single tasking will rule the day.
When you take a break, set a timer for five minutes. Do some jumping jacks to get your blood flowing — or some deep breathing to calm yourself. Just don’t check your phone or the Internet — as hard as this may be. If you don’t allow yourself to be distracted, you’ll finish sooner.
Here’s a personal disclaimer. Sometimes I allow myself to check the home screen on my phone to see if there’s a text. Usually, that’s a more urgent communication. Or, maybe I’m just rationalizing and giving myself gold stars for not going to the email or social media apps!
When you finish your task, pat yourself on the back. Every time you resist distractions and have those positive feelings associated with accomplishments, you’re creating more successes.
And your brain picks up on this. With repetition, your brain will come to recognize that when you’re faced with a difficult task, you’ll approach it with more confidence – and less of an urge to check your phone.
Procrastination usually deals with your response to unpleasant feelings associated with a task. It’s all part of your pain/pleasure cycle. You’ve linked pain to this in the past, and you need to find a way to link pleasure — through accomplishment — in the future. Long-term goals begin to trump instant gratification.
Then you can plug back in!