How to heal our smartphone-addled, overworked brains
FORTUNE — When cars first became popular 100 years ago, there were no road rules or speed limits to begin with. Inspired by the freedom of their speedy new toys, drivers zoomed around as fast as they could. Crashes were a constant.
Today’s speedy new toys, the smartphone and tablet, help people work when, where, and how they want. Excited by their newfound freedom, people are staying connected 24/7, working as fast as they can. The crashes this time are less obvious but still producing pain.
A creative team that used to debrief with their client by video once a week from the office is now on video daily from their tablets. A software project that took six people a few months to complete is now broken into hundreds of parts for micro developers to finish in a week. While these ideas may sound enticing, there are implications to moving this fast, as HP (HPQ) discovered with tablets and Apple (AAPL) with maps.
Traveling at the speed of confusion
Perhaps the biggest implication of our new speed is what this is doing to our lives, and in particular to our brains. Recently, I was in the boardroom of a government organization outside the U.S. that was in charge of regulating what should be a slow-moving industry. They were decades old, with around 10,000 employees and mountains of money. Their biggest challenge? “Our people are so overwhelmed, no one has any time to think, it’s all too much,” their executives explained.
The fire hose of information was driving folks more than a little crazy. This was a wake-up call for me. I often hear firms, including my own, fantasizing how much better life would be once they had years to get organized, better systems, the right number of employees, or plenty of capital. Yet here was a firm with all that and more, with the same chaos I see at startups.
Ironically, the biggest casualty of everyone being so connected is productivity. No one is getting much done at the office. One survey of 6,000 workers by the NeuroLeadership Institute found only 10% of people do their best thinking at work. “I have to go home and work at night to get anything done” is a phrase I hear all too often. Working nights and weekends leads to less time with families and friends and even less sleep, with 30% of Americans not getting the sleep they need today.
We won’t let people work 20-hour factory shifts anymore, but we’re okay to let them respond to emails 24/7. We organize workplaces to minimize physical injuries, yet we expect people to process huge volumes of data for hours on end. We mandate that people have vacations, yet more people are connected on vacation than ever. We are not respecting the needs of the brain largely because they are not obvious. Maybe it is time we made them more so.
In a recent edition of the NeuroLeadership Journal, UCLA psychiatrist Dan Siegel and I, along with Jessica Payne and Stephen Poelmans, outlined the deeper science behind the “Healthy Mind Platter” that Siegel and I launched in 2011. The “platter” outlines seven types of mental activities the brain needs for optimal healthy functioning.
One activity we all need is sufficient down time, when the brain is refreshed through being non-goal focused. Like other organs, our neural circuits benefit from a period of recovery after being stretched. Down time is also a critical component for complex problem solving. The incessant beeping of mobile devices raises our ambient neural activity too high to notice the quieter, non-conscious brain providing a solution to everyday (or really big) problems. With the “buzz” always on, we drown out the so-called eureka moments in the morning shower, on the walk to work, or the drive home. We should be making it okay for people to disconnect for blocks of time. If folks are not good at switching off (just as we are not good at driving at sensible speeds), perhaps we need to install some limits here. Volkswagen in Germany has started switching off their Blackberry email servers for 12 hours a day to let people rest. Other firms are experimenting with similar ideas, including minimizing or even banning internal emails.
For real down time, people need vacations where they fully switch off. This may require changing how we think about annual leave. Instead of expecting people to take long vacations, we can encourage a shorter annual break, with an extra-long weekend each month to enable recovery. Four days offline can be truly restful. Whereas a two-week break can be two weeks of hellish preparation, two weeks of rest, followed by two stressful weeks digging out from under 2,000 emails. Maybe we need a rule that requires total down time every few months for a minimum of a few days.
Another ingredient of the “Healthy Mind Platter” is focus time. This is when we focus intensely on a single task, making deeper connections across the brain. Focus time is important for long-term memory as well as overall brain health. We need to design workspaces where people can focus, totally undisturbed, for blocks of time as needed.
My research shows that people have one to two peak performing hours a day at best. What if those hours involve being bombarded with constant distractions? As well as having fewer insights and not being able to go deeply into an idea, the task switching exhausts our brains. Recently, I was pleased to notice some private, quiet working rooms at a large company’s offices, before I noticed a sign saying “for conference calls only.” As if talking to others is more important than focusing. Do we need a rule to make being able to focus at work a basic workplace right, like physical safety?
Two other critical ingredients of the “Healthy Mind Platter” are connecting time, when we be social with others, and playtime, where we make novel connections in the brain. Having connecting time turns out to be more important to our well-being than even maintaining a good diet. By helping people get their work done at work, people can have more social time and playtime outside work, not to mention get more sleep.
We have some fast and shiny new machines that are speeding up everything about how we work. Travelling at this new speed has dangers that may not be obvious at first. Maybe now is the time to build in some limits and boundaries for our hyper-connected lives, to reduce the number of accidents along our information superhighways.