It’s a limited resource, so use it healthily healthy

Here’s something you’ve never seen, let alone done, right? Stepping into a crosswalk on a busy street, heedlessly head down, glued to the phone. Oblivious to traffic, oblivious to everything not on that tiny glowing screen.

Researchers at Western Washington University named this “inattentional blindness.” They had a guy dressed as a clown ride a unicycle around a campus square. Seventy-five percent of students who walked nearby while chatting on their cell phones said they never saw him.

It was as far back as the 1980s that Michael Goldhaber had what The New York Times recently described as an epiphany: The theoretical physicist realized that “one of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. Every single action we take—calling our grandparents, cleaning up the kitchen or, today, scrolling through our phones—is a transaction. We are taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward something. This is a zero-sum proposition, he realized. “When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.”

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Nevermind multitasking. You may think you can pay quality attention at the same time to your laptop, the dog at your feet craving a head scratch and that text that just came through, but you can’t. Scientists know our brains can really only shift attention from one thing to the next, not focus on many things at once. And often to the detriment of doing right by any of the options.

So, What’s the Harm?

The question here, though, is: At what cost to our mind and body? Apart from being run down by a car on that crosswalk, the answer seems to be that we can indeed do ourselves actual harm.

Consider the evidence gleaned from

Increased stress: Employees bombarded with a steady stream of emails while trying to accomplish other tasks had higher heart rates than those without access to email, found University of California researchers. Others have noted that the outcome of constant distractions is often a poorer work product, which can affect self-esteem and overall mental outlook.

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Poorer short-term memory: A 2011 study asked participants to study one image, which was then abruptly switched to different one. Researchers found that the older the person, the harder it often was to recall details of the initial image, even after a brief time. This is also known as a working-memory deficit.

Overeating: Numerous studies indicate that being distracted while eating—reading your screens or a book, watching TV, anything that takes your focus away from your meal—can lead to not realizing when you’re full.

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As the mindfulness gurus say, Be in the now.

A Surplus of Stimuli

Also be aware Big Tech’s business model is based on our FOMO. Decades ago, Harvard psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner demonstrated that rewards, especially at variable intervals, shaped behavior by increasing anticipation. Nir Eyal, in his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, says tech companies are all too aware of Skinner’s findings. “When you’re feeling uncertain, before you ask why you’re uncertain, you Google,” he writes. “When you’re lonely, before you’re even conscious of feeling it, you go to Facebook. Before you know you’re bored, you’re on YouTube. Nothing tells you to do these things. The users trigger themselves.”

As with most things, awareness is the first step toward taking control and initiating more productive—and healthier—actions. To quote a recent article in Berkeley Economic Review, “As we continue to drown in a surplus of stimuli trying to capture our attention, perhaps we must focus on paying attention to what we pay attention to.”