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Twelve Ways To Save Your Multitasking Brain From Device Addiction


I’m a multitasking queen. I am married, have two kids in college, and homeschool my youngest. In addition, I care for my elderly mother and have two part-time jobs while also freelancing as a writer and musician. When it comes to getting it all done, Peggy Lee has nothing on me.

The landscape of my vocational battlefield is ever changing, and multi-tasking is my secret weapon. Or so I thought. According to a recent article in The Guardian, distilled from Daniel J. Levitin’s book, “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload,” there is no such thing as multitasking. Instead, because the conscious brain is incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time, there is breakneck shifting between tasks. So what I am actually doing as I attempt to carry out my multiple vocations is constantly switching my attention from one thing to another, so quickly that I don’t even notice it.

And the advances in technology that I credit with helping me to do so with increased effectiveness and efficiency are in actuality harming me. As I check email, answer my cell phone, and send and receive texts throughout the day, I am a case study in how the demands of modern life combined with the ubiquity of information are dumbing all of us down, getting and keeping us high, and slowly crippling our brains. From the article:

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.

Hello, my name is Cheryl, and I’m an information addict. If you are, too, and would like to do something about it, here is a list of possible strategies for beating the addiction. Consider it a Twelve-Step Program for Multitask-aholics.

1. Admit You Have a Multitasking Problem

As in all such programs, the first step is admitting you have a problem. I’ve done that. If you have, too, here are eleven more suggestions for overcoming your own “dopamine-addiction feedback loop.”

2. Put the Cell Phone Away

It’s okay to start small by just taking it off your person and leaving it in a designated place for short periods of time. When you get to work, take the phone out of your pocket and put it in a desk drawer. When you go for coffee or to use the restroom, do so without your phone. As you have success with short periods of separation, gradually extend them. When you head out to walk the dog, leave your phone on the kitchen counter. When you go into the club to exercise, leave it in the car. I promise it will be there when you return, and so unfortunately will all the communication that it received in your absence.

3. Don’t Get the Kids Cell Phones

Do your kids a favor and protect them as long as possible from the opportunity to develop their own addiction. In other words, don’t get them cell phones. Yes, I know all their friends have phones. Yes, I know they will hate you. Stand firm. One of your jobs as a parent is to guard them from external threats to their body and mind. In the case of cell phones, your children are endangered not only by all the information that is literally a phone call away, but by the phone itself.

Neither of my adult children had a cell phone until they went to college. My husband and I plan to take the same approach with our 11-year-old. But yes, we are homeschoolers who are almost always with our children. If your child spends large periods of time away from you and you want to provide him a phone for safety reasons, make it a basic, prepaid model for use only in cases of great need or emergency. Added benefit: he might actually talk to you every once in a while. And if he loses his phone, you won’t be out hundreds of dollars.

4. Spread the Self-Control

Challenge family and friends to join you in reclaiming your brain’s autonomy. When you have a gathering at your house, invite people upon arrival to place their devices in a designated spot. Give the person who is able to go the longest without retrieving his device a reward: a bottle of wine, perhaps, or a dark chocolate bar or block of gourmet cheese.

5. Try a Cell Phone Fast—While Eating

Invite a group of friends out to eat with the caveat that the point of the outing is to practice cell phone denial. When you get to the restaurant, have everyone shut off his phone and put it in the middle of the table. The first person to remove his phone from the pile will be the one to pay the bill, or if not the whole bill, the cost of dessert. What if everyone makes it through dinner without giving into temptation? Be glad and enjoy success for its own sake.

6. Get a Dumbphone

If you’re ready to go all in with information detox, cancel your data plan or trade in your state-of-the-art smart phone for a basic model that doesn’t have Internet access. Ask your carrier to block the text function. Add the savings to your vacation fund—you know, the one that involves sand and water and no cell phones.

7. Reserve Your Cell for Close Associates

Remember that old thing called a landline? You might even still have one. If you don’t, consider bringing it back. When people ask you for your phone number, give them the landline number. Share your cell number only with your closest friends and family, the ones you want to be able to reach you at all times. If you already have hundreds of contacts who have your phone number, consider starting fresh with a new account and a new number. Then strictly limit whom you share it with.

8. Reduce Texting

If you are one of the few and the proud who have not yet joined the texting world, congratulations! Keep holding out. If you do have texting capability, limit your contacts to the greatest extent possible. I finally succumbed to the texting wave last year, primarily as a means of keeping in close contact with my daughter, who is a freshman in college. She remains the only person I text with any regularity. My son who is in college does not text, and keeps his phone turned off except when he is using it, something that frustrates me when I want to reach him but that also makes me view him with admiration and awe.

9. Check Messages All at Once

Resist the urge to check your messages repeatedly throughout the day. Set aside times for email, Facebook and the like, and abide by them. When you have finished reading and acting on your messages, remove the occasion of temptation by closing the application. Log out of your email, shut down Facebook, and turn off Twitter.

Doing so is comparable to an alcoholic’s removing the bottle from his home. If he has to get in the car and drive to the liquor store to feed his addiction, there is more time for him to reconsider and turn the car around. If getting your dopamine fix requires signing back into that account, you may be more likely to stop yourself before it’s too late.

10. Get Some Space

Take any opportunity to put distance between yourself and your devices. Power down your computer overnight. Put your phone out of reach when you sleep. During the day, leave it in your car, briefcase, or on your desk. If you’re a woman, your purse is better than a pocket because it puts space between you and the drug. Space is good.

11. Limit Buzzers, Alarms, and Notifications

Unless there is a pressing need to remain in contact with someone or you are expecting a truly important communication, turn off ringers, alarms, and notifications. Enjoy the quiet.

12. Reward Yourself

Whenever you successfully apply one of these strategies, reward yourself. Keep a running total of instances where you took a concrete step towards lessening your device dependence. When you reach a preset goal, say 100 points, splurge on something to celebrate. The reward can’t be electronic in nature! Treat yourself to a specialty cup of coffee, get a massage, or buy a book you’ve been wanting. Then start over accumulating points for the next reward.

As I think back over my own experience of how various communication technologies have invaded my daily life, it is hard to pinpoint when casual use turned into addiction. As with most addictions, it was a creeping thing. I didn’t get my first cell phone until the turn of this century. My first laptop came later, and my first iPhone less than a year ago. So, relatively speaking, I am late to the party. Yet here I am, as addicted as the next person, spending huge chunks of my day surfing, emailing, Facebooking, Pinteresting, Twittering, and messaging.

I use the term addiction literally, not metaphorically. All day long, my brain and body show signs of desperately desiring—make that needing—an information fix. I have written this article as much for myself as for you, dear reader. I’m not ready to go cold turkey and doubt that my lifestyle will ever allow me to completely leave the grid. But I have decided it’s time for some targeted weaning. Won’t you join me? Our brains will thank us.