But for many of us, a little too much of this good thing is actually causing a neurological phenomenon that psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, MD, author of Driven to Distraction, has called "attention deficit trait," marked by distractibility and impatience. "We’re constantly scanning the environment for a new ring or buzz," Dr. Small says. "And there’s something irresistible about an unopened message," Dr. Hallowell adds. "We want to keep opening them even though we know that we’re distracting ourselves, taking ourselves out of the moment, the conversation."
That’s because our brains crave newness and reward us with a feel-good squirt of the neurotransmitter dopamine every time our phone pings with a text or emails show up in our inbox. In a soon-to-be- published study from the University of Chicago, researchers found that people have a harder time resisting the tug of gadgets than any other desire, including the urge to eat, sleep, shop, and have sex.
As a result, instead of helping us multitask better, our phones, computers, texts, emails, and apps may keep us from accomplishing as much as we want to. "What people mean by multitasking is switching their attention back and forth from one task to the next," Dr. Hallowell explains. "And every time you do that, each task loses a little bit of your attention."
But you can organize your gadget usage so you’re not overwhelmed by the never-ending emails and those incessant pings from your BlackBerry. Here are smart strategies for making your tech work in ways that keep your brain focusedand even more efficient.
Sidestep the time-suck
Need to get some work done, but finding it hard to resist the lure of Facebook? So-called "productivity tools" can stop you from surfing when you can’t stop yourself. LeechBlock, a free add-on for Firefox, lets you block sites of your choosing during certain times of the day or after you’ve already wasted a set amount of time on them; Freedom, a $10 download for PC and Mac users, blocks your Internet access for up to eight hours. Even simpler: Set a timer for 25 minutes of focused work. When it goes off, you get five minutes to check Twitter or your favorite blog.
Manage your email better
Email has morphed into a continuous form of communicationmore like a phone call than an electronic letterand, says Dr. Hallowell, you have to set boundaries. "You can’t think and email at the same time," he says. To make that stream of messages less intrusive, designate specific times when you’ll read what’s in your inboxsay, every hour on the hourinstead of compulsively checking. To make this easier, change the settings on your email program so a pop-up doesn’t alert you to each new message.
And if you read business email after work or on the weekend, avoid hitting "reply" if you don’t have to, since the more messages you send out, the more you get back.