Daniel Levitin [ Attention Economy ] I want to talk about three big ideas, and then I’d be happy to take some questions. The three big ideas are multitasking, brain extenders, and decision making in the age of information overload. But first, I’ll give you a little glimpse into why I wrote the book.
Neuroscientists in the last 10 years have learned quite a bit about why the brain pays attention to some things and forgets others. Most of that information hasn’t trickled down to the average person. I think that all of us can use this information in our daily lives to better organize our time, our homes, and workplaces. I wrote the book a way to share what it was that we as a field had learned and to give some practical tips about how to use that information.
The three big ideas.
First, some numbers, just to quantify what it is we mean by information overload. Americans, as you know better than anyone else, take in five times more information today than they did in 1986 . That’s the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of information.
During our leisure time alone, we process 34 gigabytes of information. And we’ve created a world that has 300 exabytes of human-made information. Just one person’s share of that, your share of the 300 exabytes, if each piece of information pertaining to you was written on a three-by-five index card and laid out end to end, side by side, it would cover all of the square miles of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
An overwhelming amount of information.
No wonder most of us are feeling like we can’t keep up. If you like watching YouTube for work or for relaxation, and you feel like you want to keep up with what’s happening and what’s new there, as you probably know, every hour, YouTube uploads 6,000 hours of new video . So that means for every hour of YouTube video you watch, you’re falling 5,999 hours behind. The only way you could possibly keep up is if you had 6,000 screens going all at once. And I’m sure at some point in the near future, that number is going to double and keep on doubling. So enormous amount of information.
What can we do about it?
Well, what many of us do about it is we multitask. We do a whole bunch of things at once, figuring that that way, we can manage all of the stuff that’s coming at us from all different sides. But it turns out that multitasking is a myth . And there’s now ample research that justifies and supports this. I know that it’s part of Google culture to have transmitted this information to all of you. Multitasking does not exist .
What’s actually happening in the brain is sequential tasking.
The brain is rapidly shifting from one thing to the next. It’s doing it so quickly and seamlessly that you don’t really notice, but that’s what’s happening. And what you end up with is attention that’s been fractionated into little three to five seconds bits, and you’re not able to actually sustain attention on any one thing.
Multitasking can release the stress hormone cortisol, which might make you feel at the end of a couple hours like your head has been in a salad spinner.
Multitasking is also responsible for that mental fog that you feel, partly due to the release of cortisol. So you’re not saving time. You’re wasting time.
There are actually very few jobs that require multitasking. One of them is air traffic controller. Another is simultaneous translator at the UN. And those jobs have high costs if the worker makes a mistake. It’s obvious if you make a mistake as an air traffic controller, the consequences can be calamity, disastrous. Same for simultaneous translators at the UN. You get one word wrong, you may have a war on your hands.
These jobs, it’s no coincidence that they have mandated breaks.
People in those high-stress jobs, air traffic controllers, for example, they’re not allowed to work more than 45 or 60 minutes without taking a 15 to 30 minute break. That’s their duty cycle .
A couple of other jobs that require multitasking come to mind. One is kindergarten teacher, and the other is publicist or social network consultant, and another is journalist, breaking news journalist.
But apart from that, it’s not really a job requirement for most of us.
And it ends up at the end of the day, based on a number of productivity studies, the people who were multitasking were getting less done by any measure than the people who were unitasking.
Why does it feel like we’re multitasking? Well, it’s an illusion. As a neuroscientist, I can tell you, the brain is very good at self-delusion. That’s one thing that it’s really good at. And we see it in a lot of different ways. I, for one, know that I look a lot better after I’ve been drinking . But people tell me that that’s self-delusion. I’m also a lot more clever and a better fighter after I’ve had a few drinks, or so I think.
So the brain doesn’t always have insights into what it’s good at and what it’s not good at.
We’re deceiving ourselves when we think we’re multitasking. We really aren’t. The productivity studies bear this out. So what can you do about it? Well, we can take a tip from the air traffic controllers and the simultaneous translators, and we can take breaks. Workers who are allowed to do this in a number of studies in a number of industries end up being more productive and creating better quality work .
You have to decide what the appropriate breaks are depending on the kind of work you do and depending on how your brain works.
But a good rule of thumb is every couple hours, take 15 minutes off . Naps are also very helpful, short naps. Even a 10 or 15 minute nap in the middle of the day can be the equivalent of an hour and a half of extra sleep the night before , and it can raise your effective IQ by 10 points . So naps are a good thing.
I read somewhere that Google has nap rooms, at least in some of the facilities. Is this true? So this is already a part of your culture. But I’m saying it because this is being taped and this will go out beyond Google, I guess.
Other companies have been promoting this, too. Safeway Stores, the grocery chain in the East Bay, has nap rooms and exercise rooms. These are all critical because of the underlying neurophysiology. The nap helps to restore your depleted sources of glucose in the brain, which I’ll get to in a minute. And the breaks allow you to enter a different attentional mode . And I want to talk about that for a minute, about what the vacations that you take are doing for you neurophysiologically and what the breaks and the naps are doing.
There are two dominant modes of attention in the human brain. One goes by the rather inelegant name of the task-positive network . More colloquially, this is the central executive of the brain. It’s the part of your brain that is engaged in a task, and you’re not distracted. So you might be writing a report, or doing research, or reading a book, engaging in a conversation. But if you’re focused and you’re not distracted, you’re in that mode.
The second dominant mode of the brain is called the task-negative network, and it’s when you’re not doing a task and your mind is wsndering. This is a part of the brain, a network of brain regions, that has been called the default mode of the brain, because it exerts a pull on that other part of your brain, and it’s a kind of natural state that the brain wants to go to.
I’m sure you’ve all had this experience that you’re reading a book, and at some point your eyes get ahead of where you are in the book. And you realize, well, your eyes have been following the words, but your brain hasn’t . And you’ve got to go back a ways and figure out– well, that’s the mind wandering mode that has kicked in.
It’s not that your brain had shut off. You were just thinking other thoughts, maybe stimulated by what you had read.
So this mind wandering mode turns out to be very different from the task engagement mode, because it’s where thoughts that are loosely connected seamlessly flow into one another, like in a dream. That’s why we call it daydreaming. And you begin to see connections between things that you didn’t see as connected before. Loosely-affiliated thoughts flow into one another, non-linear kinds of thinking, sometimes juxtapositions of different ideas.
This is the mode of thinking where your most creative acts are likely to occur , and where problem solving is apt to occur.
I’m sure you’ve had this experience that you’re trying to solve some problem, work something out. You focus on it. You’re getting nowhere. You drop it for a while. You might be out shopping, and suddenly, it hits you, the answer. That’s the daydreaming mode having kicked in. It usually kicks in when you’re doing something else that doesn’t require a lot of focus, and so the daydreaming mode takes over.
If you use a little bit of self-reflection and think back, or the next time it happens, analyze what’s going on. It’s probably that the solution was something that wasn’t obvious before, or you would have thought of it. It’s something that required a non-linear thinking or putting together, piecing together of disparate ideas that you hadn’t seen as connected before. So problem solving depends on this other mode of the brain.
It’s essential for all of us who are engaged in creative pursuits to be able to go back and forth between the two modes.
Attention switching, such as we do during multitasking, and decision making deplete fuel in the brain . Specifically, they deplete glucose. Glucose is the fuel that neurons need. Neurons are living cells with metabolism, and they need glucose in order to function. And glucose is not in an unlimited supply.
Every decision that you make depletes a little glucose.
Every time you switch tasks, it depletes a little bit. And it turns out that even small decisions deplete your stores of glucose as much as big ones do. So if you’re trying to decide which breakfast cereal to buy at the store or whether to use a red pen or a blue pen for something, these seemingly inconsequential decisions are still decisions as far as your neurons are concerned.
They’re competing for mental energy with important decisions, like whether to put your pension into stocks or bonds, or how to resolve some interpersonal problem you have. They’re competing with trying to remember things , like you have to pay your electric bill on a certain day at a certain time.
Whatever the decision is, it’s depleting these neural resources.
Kicking into the daydreaming mode is one of the best ways that we know of basically hitting the reset button in the brain and allowing the glucose to build up again. Taking a nap is another good way, as is taking a vacation. Vacations are very important, it turns out. When I’m talking about taking breaks and vacations, I’m not talking about, oh, I’m going to stop working. I’m going to do email, or I’m going to watch television. Those are not breaks.
I mean a real break.
The most restorative kinds of breaks are things where your mind can really wander. And each of us has a different way that we can kick start that process. It might be exercise. It might be walking in nature or a walk around the block.
It turns out there are evolutionary reasons why exposing yourself to nature enables you to hit the reset button, being around natural things like trees, water, bodies of water, mountains, flowers, and shrubs. That’s a very restorative environment. I used to work in the laboratory of Amos Tversky here at Stanford who did a lot of work on decision making. And every afternoon, he and Danny Kahneman, his colleague, would take a walk around the Stanford campus. And as Danny reports in his book, “Thinking Fast And Slow,” most of their greatest ideas came from those walks. And that’s no coincidence. This is a restorative creative act.
Exercise, taking walks, taking a nap, literature, reading. Reading stimulates this mind-wandering mode and helps you to hit the reset button.
The pull that we feel against all this, this very natural thing that we feel as if there’s so much going on and we’re asked to do so much more now than ever before, that we feel as though if we stop our work for just five minutes, we’re going to fall behind. You already have 300 unread emails in your inbox, so how can you take five minutes off?
The productivity studies are very clear on this.
If you take off those five minutes, at the end of the day, you get back more than that. And overtime is even worse. In a number of studies, people who work 60-hour weeks don’t get an extra 20 over their 40 hour a week counterparts. They end up getting only seven hours of extra work done. So you’re putting in three hours to get one hour of work done , according to the research.
Not in every profession, not in every case. This is on average.
And you can certainly think of counter-examples. If there’s a crisis– look at the Ebola workers in Liberia, or if there’s an earthquake, rescue workers. Of course, getting those seven hours is worth then putting in 20. But in daily life, in your daily work, if it’s not an emergency situation, it’s worth looking at. Am I willing to put in 20 to get seven? It may not be the best use of your time or the company’s time.
So what can we do about this?
How can we create this kind of focus that I’m talking about? One thing that experts do is they enforce productivity hours. They’ll set aside a certain time of day or several times during the day when they don’t want to be interrupted. And they turn off their email program. They might even turn off their phone. And they allow themselves to enter a state of undistracted, sustained concentration .
I think you’ll agree that most of the things that we care about, whether at work or at home, whether it’s time with family or time on a much-loved hobby, they’re more enjoyable when you’re fully immersed in them, not when you’re trying to do five things at once.
So these productivity hours are very important.
And people always say, well, I can’t turn off my email. Something urgent might come in. Well, the answer to that is, you just open up another account, a private account, and you give that address only to those people who need to reach you urgently. A number of successful and productive people do this. They might give the address only to 8 or 10 people– maybe a boss, somebody who works for them, a couple of coworkers, immediate family members.
And you can instruct those people, only use this address if it’s urgent.
If you’re sending me a video of a cat playing the piano or an invitation to a party that’s a month away, use my regular address. Because that account is going to be turned off most of the day. This is the one where I can be reached urgently. This kind of partitioning is what highly successful people do.
I interviewed a number of CEOs and successful artists, musicians, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, military leaders, and government leaders for the book, and one of the things that was a thread through all of this, in trying to understand their productivity, is they really partition things like that. I find the idea refreshing. Because if you’re like me, for a lot of your working adult life, when you’ve been at home, you’ve probably been thinking about work. And when you’re at work, you’re probably thinking about home. And you find that you’re not really in either place fully. And that’s no way to live.
It’s better to be fully in one activity or the other.
So those are some of the tips for avoiding distraction. Now, I talked about– and I’ll come back to this in a minute. I want to shift and talk about brain extenders . This is a very simple idea. The idea is that if you want to be more productive and creative, don’t load up your brain with stuff that doesn’t need to be there. A great example is, you hear on the weather report that it’s going to rain tomorrow. Why stick in your head, oh, I’ve got to remember to bring an umbrella, which is going to take up neural resources? Put that information in the environment . Go to the closet, get your umbrella, put it by the door, and then it will remind you to take it when it’s time.
If you’re the kind of person that loses your keys, get a key hook and put it by the front door or a decorative bowl on a console table by the front door. If the keys always go there, you don’t have to think about where they are. Another example of brain extenders are doors in office buildings. Why should you have to remember how every individual door in your life opens and closes?
In big buildings, usually this information is offloaded to the environment.
If the door has a big horizontal bar across it, you know you have to push it and the door is going to open out, and if it has a U-shaped handle on it, you know you’re supposed to pull it, and that the door is going to open in. You don’t have to remember this or keep track of it.
The psychologist JJ Gibson called these affordances.
They afford the way in which they’re supposed to be used. You HCI people know this term, I’m sure. And we can do that in all different ways in our environment to externalize. The other thing we do to externalize is we write things down. As soon as you put something on paper, your brain no longer needs to keep track of it.
And paper is actually better for remembering things and putting it than typing it . Because of the neural circuitry involved in writing something longhand, you end up processing the information more deeply. So writing it down in many cases is better than typing it down.
Now, Google has, of course, been the de facto information source for the last number of years, replacing long trips to the library, combing through irrelevant pages in dusty books to find the one fact that you were looking for. As my colleague Christopher Chabris says, we’ve outsourced to Google a massive volume of research chores that used to take anywhere from minutes to months of trawling through reference sources, making phone calls, and visiting archives.
Our searches are in order of magnitude more efficient and less time consuming than 20 years ago.
And this is an example of externalization. We no longer need to carry around facts like, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, or the sun is 93 million miles away, or what the time difference is between here and Mumbai. We can get it in half a second on an object we hold in our hands that has more processing power than Apollo Mission Control had.
So this is a great example of a brain extender.
I think that it’s a very important way that we can become more productive and efficient. Don’t keep up here things that don’t need to be up here. And you understand this, I think, better than anyone.
The last thing I wanted to talk about is decision making . With all of this information at our fingertips, we have the power to make decisions that we couldn’t make before. And a good example of that is in the medical domain. It used to be that you just went to the doctor, and you did whatever the doctor told you. But now there’s all kinds of information available through the internet that can help you to make an informed choice. There’s so much more information now than before.
By some estimates, the amount of scientific information in the world in the last 20 years equals all of the scientific information generated up to that point in history.
So we’ve doubled scientific information 20 years by some estimates. And there’s enormous amounts of medical data. It turns out that for some of the most difficult decisions we make in medicine, whether to get a treatment or not, whether to take a drug or not take it, whether to have surgery or radiation treatment if you’ve got cancer, these different kinds of decisions, doctors aren’t schooled in a lot of the decision-making processes that need to be applied here .
It’s not part of their curriculum. They don’t always know how to acquire the information. And once they do, they don’t know how to analyze it.
I think we’re in an age where it’s becoming increasingly apparent that we all need to take control of our own medical decision making , and we need to become proactive and responsible. And the information age has allowed that.
Of course, the difficult thing is separating the digital wheat from the digital chaff , trying to figure out what is good information and what is not. So one of the things I think we need to do is start teaching our children right away information literacy.
The primary mission of education has to shift.
It used to be trying to teach children a bunch of facts. Now they can get the facts. I think what we have to do is start teaching them how to use those facts, to use them intelligently and creatively in order to help solve the world’s problems.
So to go back to the medical case, if you’re looking up a particular prescription drug and trying to figure out whether you want to take it or not, the first thing that’s part of information literacy that every eight-year-old should know is, who’s website are you on? Is it the drug manufacturer’s? Might there be biased information on there? Is it the site for the manufacturer of a competing drug?
Maybe it’s some sort of shadow site for the manufacturer of a competing drug under the name Americansforbetterhealthcare.com or something like that. And it’s really a shill for another drug company. These are questions that are important to ask so that you can be informed.
Why is it that I’m making such a big deal out of medical decisions? I walk through several examples in the book. I’ll give you one.
Suppose you go to your doctor, and your doctor says that your cholesterol is high, and that she wants to start you on statens. You’ve heard of statens. You know that they’re cholesterol-lowering drugs. And so you think, sure, why not? Sounds like a good idea. I’d like to have lower cholesterol. Well, the first question you should ask is what is the number needed to treat. This is a little-known statistic that doctors don’t like talking about and pharmaceutical companies like even less. It’s the number of patients that have to take a drug for it to be effective on one patient. Now, you’re probably thinking, well, that’s crazy. The number should be one.
Why would my doctor be giving me a medication that’s not going to help me?
But it doesn’t actually work out that way, because there are a lot of medications that don’t work on everybody. In fact, most don’t work on everybody. I can only think of one or two medications where the number needed to treat is one, and they’re for rare cancers only a few hundred people a year get. For most of us, the drugs aren’t going to work on everybody.
Think about this for a minute.
What do you suppose the number needed to treat for one of the more popular statens is? How many people need to take it before one person gets cured? For the one I’m thinking about– and which Penguin’s lawyers said I’m not allowed to say out loud– for the one I’m thinking of, the number needed to treat is 300.
I didn’t just pull this out to shock you.
This is a typical number needed to treat for pharmaceutical products. 300 people take the drug, one person gets better. So now you’re thinking, well, OK, I don’t want to have high cholesterol. Sure, I’m willing to take the chance of being the one in 300 that’ll help, because I’m helping to reduce the chance of my getting a heart attack.
But then the next question you should ask your doctor is, well, wait a minute, what are the chances of side effects for this drug, and what are they?
Well, for the drug I’m thinking about, one of the most popular cholesterol-lowering drugs, the side effects occur in about 5% of the people who take it. And the side effects include severe and debilitating muscle and joint pain, gastrointestinal distress, diarrhea, blood in the stool, blood in the urine, headaches, nausea, and dizziness . These are awful. 5% of the people are getting it.
Well, that’s not a lot if we take five out of 100.
But if we take the 300 that we’re talking about, that means 15 people are going to have the side effects for every one person who’s helped. You’re 15 times more likely to experience the side effect than the cure. So now the calculation becomes a little different about whether you want to take this thing or not.
This is the kind of information literacy and decision-making literacy that I lay out in the book and I think we should be teaching beginning at eight-year-olds– some of the more nuanced things, maybe not till high school. And it involves things that some of you engineers know, Bayesian inferencing, updating your estimates of probabilities with new information.
This is very important.
Getting back to the idea of what we should teach our children, not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re going to encounter the facts on their own. They already know how to find out information. What they’re not getting trained adequately how to evaluate those sources of information and how to use them creatively and intelligently.
Solving the biggest problems in the world will require a combination of that– knowing how to use information– and having adequate opportunities to let the daydreaming or creative mode kick in.
Let’s face it.
The biggest problems we’re looking at in the world right now– aggression across borders and within countries, poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, climate change– if the problems had simple, linear solutions, somebody would have figured them out already. It’s more likely that they’ll come from people who were thinking outside the box, as we say, thinking creatively.
For that to happen, it’s not going to happen while you’re doing 10 things at once and giving five seconds of attention to each one .
It’s going to happen when you have a sustained period to deal with them.
Now, when I talk about being organized, I don’t want there to be a misunderstanding. I’m not talking about all of us being like Mr. Spock, and being completely regimented, and unemotional, and logical all the time. What I’m talking about is being able to bring more efficiency to the workday so that at the end of the day, you close the door on it and have more time for spontaneity, for creativity, for time with loved ones, and for fun. I’m talking about being able to introduce those elements more regular in your life, so you’re not feeling like you’re always behind, that you’re able to make the most out of every minute and every opportunity.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Stewart Baird