Earlier this summer, I was delighted to find that my smart phone didn’t work in Bryce Canyon. Easily one of the most beautiful National Parks, Bryce also offers something that we don’t have much of in our lives: silence. This combination of being disconnected from technology and being surrounded by silence has the ability to renew us and reenergize us. Several recent articles explain why our brains respond so positively to these conditions.
Modes of Attention
In a New York Times article, Daniel J. Levitin said that “Several studies have shown that people who work overtime reach a point of diminishing returns.” If you are like many lawyers I know, it is quite possible that you are working an excessive number of hours and may not have taken a real vacation this year. Even if you did get away physically, your tech addiction might have kept you mentally connected to your work so that you never truly gave your brain a rest.
However, Levitin includes positive news in “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain.” He says, “Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network…The task-positive network is active when’re you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted… The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode.”
Obviously, much of a lawyer’s daily work involves the task-positive network. But unless you give yourself breaks during the day, you won’t benefit from the insights that the task-negative network can provide. Levitin writes, “You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly – boom – the answer to a problem that had been vexing you suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.” It’s only by being regularly disconnected from our various digital devices that these real and important connections are possible.
Continuous Partial Attention
I have to credit Shane Parish and his Farnam Street newsletter for bringing so many great articles to my attention. In a recent issue, he reviewed the book “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection,” by Michael Harris. In his book, Harris mentions the phrase “continuous partial attention” that was coined by Linda Stone, way back in 1998 before multi-tasking was so prevalent and before digital devices were ubiquitous. How can we truly focus on building relationships when we are continually and equally distracted by the important and unimportant messages that pop up on our screens? How can we focus on client service or business development if we are training our brains to be distracted?
It’s not just the distraction that affects us. Being constantly connected has a serious downside. According to Dr. Gary Small, a researcher at UCLA who was quoted in the Harris book, “This atmosphere of manic disruption makes (our) adrenal glands pump up production of cortisol and adrenaline…In the short run, these stress hormones boost energy levels and augment memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex – the brain regions that control mood and thought. Chronic and prolonged techno-brain burnout can even reshape the underlying brain structure.”
A Few Suggestions
If your ability to solve problems is valuable to your clients, and I’m sure it is, you may want to make the “mind-wandering mode” a priority in your life. Here are a few ways to start making changes.
- When you are in your car, turn off the radio. See how long you can be comfortable with silence.
- The next time you are waiting for someone for a meeting, try to sit quietly without checking messages for five minutes.
- Instead of letting each email message interrupt you as it arrives, experiment with responding to messages once an hour.
- Take regular short breaks during the day. Stand up, walk around, and take a few deep breaths.
- And, of course, I highly recommend starting a regular meditation practice. Even ten minutes of silence a day can make a huge difference in relieving stress and refreshing your brain.