For centuries, humans have recognized that the mind is the most complicated thing we encounter. To understand the mind, then, we compare it to the most complicated technology of the era. When water devices ruled the world, there were hydraulic theories of the brain. And for the last 50 years, we have had a computer metaphor for how the mind works.
That computer metaphor has been quite productive for scientists. It has led to advances in our understanding of learning, memory, and complex reasoning. This way of thinking about the mind has helped us to understand how people learn to make predictions about the relationships among pieces of information.
If you still listen to CDs, for example, you probably start to hear the first few notes of the next song on a favorite album in your mind just before it starts playing, because your brain has learned to predict the next song after repeated listening. This ability to make predictions is crucial for understanding language and for predicting the behavior of people around you.
But one thing the computer metaphor has missed is the importance of timing in the brain.
Computers have a CPU that cycles through operations in order to run programs. In general, the aim of computer architectures is to engage its operations as quickly as possible in order to support more intensive programs that can do complex calculations or play kitten videos in real time.
Brains are different. An important function of the brain is not just to predict what is going to happen next, but when it is going to happen. Coordinated activity between people requires doing the right action at the right time.
As a result, the brain learns a lot about when things are likely to happen in the world around you. Those predictions affect what you pay attention to.
These timing predictions happen at lots of time scales. Shaking hands with a business associate requires predicting where the other person's hand is going to be just a few seconds later so that you don't reach out awkwardly. Running a good meeting involves predicting when it is time to wrap up so that people can continue to their next appointment. Keeping in touch with important clients requires being able to predict a good time to reach out to speak with someone again.
That means that whenever you engage in an activity frequently, your brain is trying to predict when you will need to do it again. And that is where technology can get you in trouble.
Many people check their email several times an hour. They may also check their smart phones and social-media channels. At first, this behavior is done in a controlled fashion. You elect to open your email program or pull out your phone.
The brain is learning about the timing of these actions. If you check your email every 20 minutes, then your brain knows that when you are sitting at your desk, your eyes should dart to the badge that signals that new emails have arrived about every 20 minutes. You engage visual attention to read the number of new emails and then decide whether to take the extra step to pull up the program and see what has come in.
Add smart phone use and perhaps even social media into the mix, and you may be shifting your attention away from important tasks about every five minutes. You are not controlling this action consciously any more. Your brain has learned this timing and is trying to predict the optimal time to make these checks of your technology, so it interrupts your train of thought frequently to shift you toward incoming messages.
As a result, deciding you want to pay attention to other work for longer stretches of time requires more than just making a resolution to be more diligent about reading or engaging more sustained effort to work on a key report. You have to disrupt the timing the brain has learned.
That means you need to try to increase the time between disruptive uses of technology to minimize how often your brain interrupts you to check messages and social media. If you find that difficult, then spend some time tracking how often your attention flips away from something you are working on.
Figure out the timing between lapses of attention. Start setting a timer for a period of time longer than your typical attention span. Put all of your disruptions out of reach for that amount of time. Keep doing that until you can reliably concentrate for a longer period of time. And then increase the amount of time again.
In addition, use your free time to help free yourself of the timing your brain has learned. Start leaving your smart phone at home when you go out for a walk. Stand in line at the grocery store or coffee shop without using technology. The more you disrupt the brain's ability to predict when you are going to engage with technology again, the more you will be able to concentrate for long stretches when you need to.
The idea is that you need to relearn timing relationships in your environment. Your brain needs to learn that it does not need to shift attention away from important tasks several times an hour.