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Quit Worrying About Unplugging and Do This Instead

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by Kara Baskin

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Philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford, author of acclaimed books The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction and Shop Class as Soulcraft, studies the effect of digital distraction and information overload on the brain. Here’s his prescription for staying sane in a hyper-wired world. 

Get Hands On: “We need to engage with the world more directly,” Crawford says, not through a screen but by actually doing things. “Skilled practices play an important role: I write about sports, hockey, short-order cooking, craftsmanship, building pipe organs, riding motorcycles, any activity where you are directly engaged with the world as opposed to being a passive consumer—skilled activities that pull you into your own head and immerse you into practice.” 

This is the way humans were meant to live, as opposed to our current office set-ups, Crawford says. “We’re embodied beings. We have bodies and live among other people. You can turn it around and say that it’s just very artificial and novel to be sitting in front of a screen encountering the world that way. Our basic psychological equipment didn’t evolve for that.”

Enjoy the Power of Doing: The jobs Crawford writes about—short-order cooking, building organs—relieve us of the burden of choice and immerse us in the power of doing. Of course, most of us do toil behind computer screens and smartphones, with all the temptations that lurk within, from Facebook to Candy Crush. What then? Well, it’s possible to apply these lessons even at the office.

Replug, Don’t Unplug: “People often try to go on a digital detox,” he says. Instead, Crawford suggests, do the opposite. Re-acclimate your brain by managing temptations and schedule pre-set times to perform distracting tasks that might otherwise interrupt deep focus.

“You’re then training your will to resist it. The mere fact you want to check your email and you’re not has this kind of effect of retraining your brain.”

Resist Random Reinforcement: But why are we so addicted to checking in the first place? Why scroll Facebook during a meeting or scroll through email compulsively while in traffic? According to Crawford, it’s about the power of random, elusive gratification.

“When you couple repetition with random reinforcement, it creates an addiction,” Crawford explains. “It’s not that every time you open your email you get something rewarding. But every once in a while you get some juicy bit. It’s that randomness.” It seems we’re always looking for the next big piece of news—even if it arrives incredibly rarely.

Become Single-Minded: To break the cycle, Crawford recommends resisting the urge to multi-task. Instead, give yourself to one task, and give yourself over completely.

“Arrange things so you’re not constantly being yanked in different directions. There’s this whole myth of multi-tasking: Nobody does it well. Some people think they do. What they really do is work on different things and it’s to the detriment to your performance on any one,” he says.  

Only then, Crawford says, can we find full engagement. So while most of us aren’t short-order cooks, we can try to act like them at our desks.