Thursday, June 30, 2011

The importance of learning to unplug

Students arrive at law school already knowing what it's like to be plugged-in 24/7. What's important to teach them, therefore, are the cognitive benefits of unplugging. The evidence is pretty clear that you can't produce high quality work that requires deep thought if you're distracted by wireless devices. (Indeed, evolutionary psychologists tell us that it's hard enough to get the brain to think abstractly, let alone multitask while doing it, since the brain was originally designed for social learning and interaction, not office work).  Because digital natives overestimate their ability to multitask, it's important that we teach them to unplug when they can.

From Belly of the Beast blogger Steven J. Harper, courtesy of

Self-delusion about the consequences of constant connectivity has become a special problem for attorneys who measure their lives in billable hours. They've convinced themselves that these technological innovations have come with no downside. Especially for those practicing at large firms, it's all positive because everyone is just utilizing time more productively, i.e., it's getting billed and the equity partners in particular are getting richer.

Associates supposedly benefit, too. Unlike earlier, tougher times, they can go home and continue billable activities in their virtual offices.

And the clients? They get 24/7 access to their lawyers.

Everyone wins because the human mind can simultaneously do many things well, right? Not really.

The human brain processes information sequentially, that is, one thing at a time. When interrupted, the mind disengages from the original task, turns to the second one, and then disengages again before returning to what it was doing first. Not surprisingly, a recent scientific study found that young people (average age 24) switched tasks more quickly and easily than old ones (average age 69).

But another study reveals that people of all ages underestimate the extent to which they are, in fact, distracted in ways that burden the brain and diminish productivity. Using television and computer screens concurrently, the subjects multitasked between TV and Internet content. On average, they switched between the two media four times per minute -- or 120 times during the 27-minute experiment.

That's stunning, but less shocking than the gap between reality and the subjects' perceptions. Compared to the actual number of 120, they thought they'd switched between TV and computer screens only 15 times. The report concluded:

"That participants underreported their switching behavior so drastically echoes recent work in the applied multitasking field that illustrates how individuals tend to overestimate their multitasking ability and how heavy multitaskers are prone to distraction ... [P]eople have little self-insight into multitasking behavior."

You can read the rest here.


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