When You’re Not Studying Guard Yourself From Digital Distractions

Anyone who has tried to apply herself to prolonged periods of study will know that our greatest enemy is distractions. If this was true for conventional study, it is even more the case when our studying takes place on the computer, which in the last ten years has become a veritable ecosystem of distraction technologies.

If people studying in the past suffered from an inability to locate the needle in the haystack (“situational overload”), the digital overload we suffer from today (what might also be called “ambient overload”) comes from facing a haystack-size-pile-of-needles. (Read more about the difference between situation overload and ambient overload here). The result is that it takes a Herculean effort to stay focused.

“…to stay effective you need to stay focused” writes Tom Searcy in an article for Inc. Describing the phenomenon of “Digital Overload” Searcy observes just how ubiquitous distractions are for those of us who are “plugged in” (e.g. online):

Forget billboards, radios, TV and print advertising for a moment. These types of advertising are decades or more old and you have developed some filters to help control your responses. The more insidious attention vampires are on your smartphones, tablets and computer screens.

Every app, game, search engine and access point is now an attention-span off-ramp. Your productivity is dependent upon your ability to control and then actively select what gets your attention. Multi-thinking is a myth: You can’t give complete and equal cognitive attention to multiple thoughts simultaneously….

This is nothing new, of course, and at TSM we have frequently encouraged EPPP students to unplug during study sessions. However, Searcy goes on to make a point that is less obvious but equally important: you should also unplug during your study breaks to give your mind the full benefit of rest. Quoting again from Searcy’s article:

Think of your mind as a bank–the place you store such valuable items as thoughts, dreams, skills and experience. So naturally, you need to protect it…. take breaks for digital escapes–but break hard. Apply the same level of focus to your [work]: Close your email, stop your projects, shut your door and open your favorite Zynga game. You have earned it, so revel.

Policing your rest periods is crucially important since many students who successfully take steps to block out distractions while studying nevertheless allow their minds to be bombarded with digital stimuli during their rest periods. The result is that their brains never get a chance to unwind, thus opening themselves up to the neurotransmitter depletion effect when the brain feel like its in a fog and loses the ability to sustain concentrated focus.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong in wasting a bit of time with computer games and social media during your time off. In fact, having scheduled periods of the day for this type of thing can actually help to keep you focused the rest of the time when you are studying. However, the key is to remain self-conscious about the drawbacks and use these things as tools under your control. As Nicholas Carr observed in his book The Shallows:

“What we’re not doing when we’re online also has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.

“…when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, buried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. …the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions…. Given our brain’s plasticity, we know that our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our synapses when we’re not online.”

One of the ways to keep the neurons in your brain sharp is to spend time in your breaks doing activities offline that are good for the brain—activities like reading books, meditating, taking a quiet walk in nature, listening to music or exercising. Research suggests that all these activities can strengthen cognitive functioning and refresh the brain.

Not only that, but these breaks will lessen the likelihood that you will get distracted when you go back online to study, since the potential for getting distracted rises the longer we are involved in a task without taking a break.

One great way to spend your downtime is with friends. A 2008 article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, titled ‘Mental Exercising Through Simple Socializing‘, reported on research which suggests a direct correlation between social interaction and cognitive functioning.

Further Reading



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