Driving back from a meeting recently, balancing a cacophony of mental to-dos while flipping channels on satellite radio, I landed on an NPR interview with P.M. Forni. What he said made me stop and give him my full attention. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, was discussing his book The Thinking Life: How to Survive in the Age of Distraction. This is an idea that landed in the right car.
Forni’s point is that we’re turning into a society that’s addicted to distraction. Besides making us unsafe drivers and annoying dinner companions, there are deeper consequences. Forni posits that we’re losing our ability to think critically, which also chips away at the human need to be contemplative and strategic about our work and our lives.
Forni isn’t the first person to arrive at this conclusion, though his thesis is relatable to many of us.
Whether your particular distraction is email, Twitter, a smartphone or television, you’ll likely find some truth here. How many of us have quiet time in our day at all? And if we don’t have mental space to process, how do our decisions suffer?
Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, explains this point scientifically. She explains that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain responsible for decision making and control of emotions, goes on hiatus when it gets overloaded. “With too much information,” says Dimoka, “people’s decisions make less and less sense.”
We need to develop our thinking muscle or it atrophies, Forni says. Relying on knee-jerk decision making is a risky endeavor. As popular writers on behavioral economics, like Jonah Lehrer and Dan Ariely have shown us, gut instinct is highly suspect.
A recent study in Harvard Business Review found that 87% of people made an ethical decision with only three minutes of processing time versus 56% of those who had to respond immediately.
Part of the problem we’re facing, according to Forni, is that information retrieval has replaced memory as what passes for knowledge.
In 2008, an article written by John Naughton of The Observer was headlined: “I Google, therefore I am losing the ability to think.” His conclusion: “The combination of powerful search facilities with the web’s facilitation of associative linking is what is eroding [our] powers of concentration. It implicitly assigns an ever-decreasing priority to the ability to remember things in favor of the ability to search efficiently.”
All of this resonates with me. I find that the Internet has made my memory lazy. I have trouble recalling names of books I’ve read, or historical details. After all, in one click I can go back and look again. And I find that I can have an issue rattling around upstairs for weeks, but when I take a quiet hour or two to process it, I can often knock it out with a good a-ha moment.
So what’s a busy person to do? Can swiss cheese brain be reversed? Fortunately, Forni offers practical ideas for increasing our ability to think without adding more hours in the day. He maintains that with small changes we can seize the time we need for thought. Here are a few tips I found helpful.
- The Thinking Lunch. A couple of times a week simply eat lunch and use the time to think. All too often we use our lunch time to read the paper or catch up on email. If you don’t have a business meeting over lunch, have the meeting with yourself.
- Make Car Time Count. We spend a lot of time in our cars, and it’s a prime place for distraction. Forni advises to consider having a quiet car. Don’t automatically turn on the radio or make calls. Instead, use the time to process thoughts or develop ideas.
- Embrace Waiting Time. For most of us, when we’re forced to wait we get impatient and reach for any distraction — usually our smartphone or the latest US Magazine at the doctor’s office. Instead, keep a small notebook and use that waiting time for thinking about whatever’s on your mind: that big idea you’re working on, your PowerPoint presentation, or an article you’re writing.
- Use the “One-Third Solution.” A good part of what we schedule in our day is out of routine, not necessity. If you want to create more time to think, you may find it by eliminating needless items in your schedule. Whatever you do at work, see if you can do 1/3 less of it. Forni uses business lunches as an example. When we get introduced to someone, lunch is the default. See how many meetings can be done via phone, or over email instead. With a few small tweaks, you can reclaim hours in your week. The challenge is to not fill them up by surfing Facebook.
Do you have an opinion about creating more thinking time? Share here or @kristihedges.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. This post also appears on Forbes.com.