Internet overload: excessive internet use can drive you to distraction and kill your productivity. But are you addicted? And what can you do about it? One MF writer tries to go cold turkey.

By Nathan Ditum

On a typical working day my desk set-up looks something like this: on my PC I’ll have two email accounts open, one for work and one for personal stuff. I’ll have a browser with tabs open on Facebook and Twitter, plus local and international online news pages. I’ll be signed into Instant Messenger through my work account as well as Facebook’s chat function, and I’ll have my iPhone on my desk next to my regular phone. Every bleep and hoot is a potential distraction. And a small army of colleagues around me are doing exactly the same thing. It’s a miracle I ever get anything done.

Social media expert Thomas Crampton sums up my problem when he says “the internet is making us stupid”. It sounds counter-intuitive, given the bottomless archive of facts, analysis and skateboarding accident footage it gives us access to, but there’s a growing body of debate and research examining the effects of information overload, the irresistible pull of social networks, the impact of multitasking and the consequences of being constantly connected to everything by smartphone.

It’s something most of us will have experienced — days frittered away in a fog of fascinating Wikipedia entries and pictures of monkeys in hats, the border between work and home blurred by always-on communications. My plan is to switch off for a week to untangle how these things affect my life, and to evaluate the various strategies for dealing with them.

The aim isn’t to ditch technology altogether, but to break the cycle of compulsive use and optimise the time I spend with it. I use a tool called FocalFilter, which blocks chosen internet sites after a pre-set time limit, to restrict my time on the usual distractions to a total of one hour a day. I feel like a 40-a-day smoker being given a single nicotine patch. I recall that scene from Trainspotting with the creepy baby crawling across the ceiling, and then have to resist the urge to instantly YouTube it. This is an excellent start.

INTERNET OVERLOAD: TWITTER YE NOT

The very first day of my week’s disconnection is a revelation. I know I occasionally get pulled away from work by an interesting article posted on Twitter, and I have a bordering-on-compulsive urge to click the “send/receive” button on my email every few minutes. But it isn’t until I shut down the source of these distractions that I realise the effect it has been having.

That Monday morning, after I clear my weekend inbox, I catch myself frantically scanning the borders of my screen rather than focusing on the middle.

I am, subconsciously, looking for something else to do. I have multiple things to check and refresh —  email, Twitter, Facebook, news — and if something catches my attention on any one of these steps, then by the time I’m done reading it I’m ready to start the cycle again, like that mythological Greek bloke — the one who was doomed to roll a stone up a mountain for eternity. What was his name again? It takes every ounce of willpower I have not to Google it.

As Crampton says, “with the arrival of the internet, humans have developed the perfect medium for distraction”. This isn’t just because there are lots of things to look at, but because our brains are wired to hunt them down, discard them and keep hunting. Heard of dopamine? It’s a chemical neurotransmitter that plays a huge part in both addiction and reward-driven learning. Recent research suggests that, rather than causing pleasure itself, dopamine is released by the brain to encourage us to seek pleasure. It’s about the buzz of anticipation rather than the glow of satisfaction — and this anticipation is the stronger impulse. A recent study from Stanford University in the US scanned the brains of subjects while they were engaged in a gambling simulator, and found that the possibility of winning stimulated greater brain activity than actual winning did. Go figure.

But what’s all this got to do with me checking my Twitter feed every five minutes? Dr Susan Weinschenk, a psychologist and author who blogs at whatmakesthemclick.net, says “the dopamine-seeking system keeps us motivated to move through our world, learn, and survive”. From an evolutionary standpoint it’s an aid to survival. In today’s world, it threatens to trap us in a loop of agitation.

“Dopamine starts us seeking, then we get rewarded for the seeking, which makes us seek more,” Dr Weinschenk explains. “It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, stop checking our phones to see if we have a message or a new text.”

INTERNET OVERLOAD: PENALTY CLICK

I sure recognise this. It perfectly describes my restless cycling through web pages and also explains the giddy thrill of seeing a “new message” alert. Dr Weinschenk specifically mentions that these alerts can be a dopamine cue; my brain is so conditioned to respond to the arrival of new mail that, more than once, I’ve emailed myself a document, quickly forgotten about it, and then experienced a tiny jolt of excitement at seeing my own message a few seconds later. On this Monday morning, with my browsers closed and with only work to focus on, I feel calmer, the chemical buzzing less intrusive. I get plenty done and — this is something I didn’t expect — find myself feeling fresher at the end of the day.

There’s a good reason for this. Although busy modern workplaces often demand that we give attention to more than one objective at a time, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that multi-tasking is not only difficult but bad for us. A study at the University of Utah in the US recently found that just 2.5 percent of subjects could successfully multi-task without damaging their performance. Worse still, a Stanford University study found that regular multi-taskers were worse at filtering irrelevant information (such as email and Twitter alerts), at storing information and switching tasks than others. In other words, even trying to multi-task could be softening up your brain for regular work.

Other gloomy facts: being constantly interrupted can lead to a temporary loss of up to 10 IQ points (smoking marijuana saw subjects drop only four IQ points), while a University of California study from 2008 concluded that workers who experience more interruptions had to deal with “a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration and more time pressure”.

Knowing all this, I can only get more focused and productive from now on, right? Not quite — my second day of disconnection turns out to be less successful than the first, thanks to an unusual deluge of (almost entirely work-related) emails. Even with just the one inbox to worry about, I find my concentration broken by meandering group conversations and distracting back-and-forths.

This is because once I’m engaged in an email conversation I keep on checking back for a response. Partly this is thanks to the same dopamine mechanisms that make tripping from link to link so exhilarating. But even with a single source of stimulation, I find the lure of another message very powerful. The reason for this is our mate dopamine again — it responds to irregular rewards over and above boring old predictable ones.

INTERNET OVERLOAD: BOX CLEVER

This is sometimes called the “Skinner Box” principle, after the behavioural scientist Dr B. F. Skinner. While at Harvard, Dr Skinner conducted tests in which he placed two sets of rats in an enclosure with a lever. One set were given food pellets regularly, for instance, every 10 pulls of the lever. The other were given pellets at no fixed pattern. The irregular rats were not only more stimulated but continued to hammer the lever for far longer after the rewards were stopped than their counterparts.

Now replace the lever with my send/receive button, and you’ll see what behavioural economist Dr Dan Ariely means when he says that email makes me very much like a rat sniffing for food pellets. “Most of your email is junk and the equivalent to pulling the lever and getting nothing in return,” he explains. “But every so often we receive a message that we really want. Maybe it contains good news about a job, a bit of gossip, a note from someone we haven’t heard from in a long time or some important piece of information.”

Lesson learned, and the next day I follow advice I receive from Dr Weinschenk after I (ironically) email her a cry for help. “First of all, turn off as many of those cues as you can,” she says. “You can set your email so that a message doesn’t pop up. You can set it so the icon doesn’t show how many messages you have. Turn off the sound cue when you get a text. These are significant changes and you’ll see a change in your behaviour within a day or less.”

I do all those things, and I also employ a common productivity tip of only checking my email at regular, pre-determined intervals during the day, giving a predictable shape to an unpredictable flow of data. But I still struggle to regain that wonderful clarity I experienced on day one, and I think I know why this is. Being constantly interrupted can lead to a temporary loss of up to 10 IQ points (smoking marijuana sees a drop of only four points).

Not only have I been rationing my Twitter use, but I’ve also trimmed the number of people I follow to those who I find most interesting. My thinking is that I’ll spend less time working through irrelevant messages, but still receive the same number of interesting links and insights. But I find I actually become more distracted, reading more articles than normal and crashing into my one-hour allotment.

Nicholas Carr, author of the Pulitzer-nominated book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains (amazon.com), has a suggestion as to why. Responding to the suggestion that information overload in the internet age can be solved with improved filters, he says that “the quality and speed of our information filters have been improving extraordinarily quickly for the last two decades, and yet our sense of being overloaded with information is stronger than ever”.

As our filters improve, Carr says, there’s actually an increase in the particular kind of data we’re interested in. The problem isn’t finding a needle in a haystack, but dealing with “haystack-sized piles of needles”, something I’ve exacerbated by making my filter more efficient.

INTERNET OVERLOAD: DIGITAL DIETICIAN

At first, I feel like I’ve flunked my week of switching off, but then I talk to Daniel Seiberg, author of The Digital Diet (thedigitaldiet.com), a book about finding the balance between life and technology. Seiberg now works in marketing for Google, but was working as a technology correspondent for CBS when he realised his Blackberry-aided immersion in social networks was removing him from his real-life relationships. “My wife had a nickname for me: Glow Worm,” he says, “since my face was constantly illuminated by some kind of screen in the bedroom at night.”

The Digital Diet isn’t really about switching off — it encourages people to identify their dependence on technology, assess the damage it’s doing and then reconnect in a more beneficial way. “It’s about managing your existing technologies in a more effective manner,” Seiberg says. I point out that the effects of nutritional diets are often short-lived and ask what makes this digital one different. “My goal is that people take the pillars of the book’s message and apply them to their life,” he says. “Just like with a food diet, you may not remember every recipe or stick with every rule, but in the long term you will appreciate the ideals and incorporate it as best you can.”

INTERNET OVERLOAD: DISTRACTION ENGINE

By the end of my week, I’m ready to agree. My day three failure turned out to be pivotal. The fact that I’m more likely to be distracted by interesting, quality information raises a complex problem at the core of my relationship with technology. Sometimes I want to be distracted.

I enjoy having a daily list of reading recommendations and videos from Twitter, updates on family and friends on Facebook and feeling in touch with the world through email. Cold turkey isn’t for me — the ideal is to find a way to enjoy these benefits without getting dragged into the exhausting chain of data-chasing our brains are built to pursue.

And I think I’m on the way there. I now work with my browser and email switched off and check my info touch-points only once every 90 minutes or so. If I do find myself falling into a distracting email chat, a website dedicated to pictures of dogs dressed as bees or a Wikipedia article on Victorian dressmaking,

I try not to feel too bad about it. “I’m not perfect, by any means,” says Seiberg. “Like we all do, there are days when I struggle to keep that balance But I do feel more productive, I feel more grounded in reality, and I feel healthier overall.

I love technology and I want others to love it, too — just not unconditionally.” Me too. Now, what’s the best way to find a video of that freaky ceiling-baby?

 

Internet overload: Are you addicted to the internet?

Take our simple quiz to find out if you’ve got a internet overload problem that needs addressing.

1] What’s the first thing you check when you wake up?

a) The time

b) That your wife still hasn’t left

c) How many retweets your hilarious joke about Karl Stefanovic received overnight

2] Conversation over breakfast normally consists of…

a) The day’s plans

b) Discussing “why we never talk anymore”

c) Vibrating alerts and the occasional guffaw through a mouthful of muesli

3] Your idea of “disconnecting” is…

a) Heading out into the hills and off the grid

b) Rage-quitting Call Of Duty 3 because you keep getting killed by the helicopter

c) Looking away from the PC to check a text on your phone

4] Which do you fear most?

a) Losing your sense of purpose

b) Losing your Twitter followers

c) Losing your 3G signal on a two-hour train ride

Mostly As Nothing to worry about. You see the internet as simply a useful means of communication. In fact, have you even seen Reddit?
Mostly Bs Time to rein it in a bit there, chief. Think about it this way: just because you can look up all the words to Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch from 40 years ago doesn’t mean you should.
Mostly Cs You’re addicted to the internet and it’s time for an intervention — although you won’t know because you’re not even reading this anymore, are you? You’ve already been distracted by a video of a snowboarding pig on YouTube.

Internet overload is real. Remember that there is a whole wide world out there.