TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

WSJ: Improve Your Productivity and Your Life by Getting Rid of Internet Service at Home

Wall Street Journal, Say No to the Distraction-Industrial Complex:

No InternetOf all the potentially embarrassing things I confess to friends and acquaintances, perhaps the one most guaranteed to get a reaction is this: I don't have broadband Internet at home. And here's something I've never said aloud: I don't think you should, either, because it is ruining your productivity, if not your life. ...

Barring emergency, work is confined to work hours. This forces me to be more efficient at the office even as it allows me to be more emotionally present when I'm not there. It also has led me to notice that the times I am most productive while working are when I have no Internet connection at all—on planes, buses and trains.

To understand why, we've got to talk about both human psychology and the increasing sophistication of our computing devices—all of which, being built by companies with powerful financial incentives to capture our attention, are now instruments of what I call the distraction-industrial complex.

First, there's the matter of our frail psyches. The best research we have tells us that, given the opportunity, humans tend to interrupt ourselves on average every three minutes. We'll switch from a Web browser to a Word document, for example. These interruptions are fairly harmless as long as they are all related to the task at hand.

What's devastating to our productivity: interruptions we didn't invite, especially if they draw our attention to an unrelated task, such as an incoming email, instant message or other alert. ...

In general, people underestimate the cost of these distractions, partly because we underestimate the effects of what psychologists call "ego depletion." The idea is that we have only so much willpower. Some neuroscientists believe the brain literally runs out of its fuel, glucose, when we have to perform cognitively demanding tasks. But exercising the self control required to not answer that incoming email is also cognitively demanding.

In other words, in a world full of interruptions, we can't win; engaging and choosing not to engage with a push notification both take their toll, leading to worse performance on the things we're actually supposed to get done.

Which brings me back to my ongoing quest to find places to avoid the Internet. The balance of evidence isn't just that we aren't able to manage distractions on our own, it is that we shouldn't be asked to.

There is nothing wrong with connectivity, apps, alerts and social media, if we engage with them on our own terms. But the limitations of our minds mean we have to be able to reduce our decision to engage with them or not to a straightforward, binary choice we should be asked to make as few times a day as possible: To connect, or not.

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