Your Phone is Changing the Way you Work (and not in a good way)

 It’s 11:37 PM and I can’t sleep because my brain is too busy reliving all the embarrassing things that have ever happened to me. Naturally, I reach for my phone in search of a distraction- anything must be better than reliving the 8th grade. I type  “baby guinea pigs” into my phone, hit the search button and am not disappointed.

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Am I alone in this? Do you ever catch yourself having a stressful thought, and suddenly feel the urge to grab your phone and Google something random? This is a coping mechanism my mind has developed to avoid the subjects I don’t want to deal with, like cringe-y memories I’d rather forget.  

While this coping mechanism is great for when I can’t fall asleep, it’s not so great when there are important things swimming around in my brain that need to be addressed. My smartphone has made it super easy to never have to think deeply about things that are tough. I have to make a real effort when I want to focus on something by putting away these easy distractions.

As a 24 year old in today’s technological age it’s not too surprising that the devices I use have a an impact on my personal life. What I didn’t anticipate was feeling the repercussions of that in my job. I remember the first few days after my formal training ended, I felt the urge to grab my phone every time I felt that panicky, lost feeling.

Luckily I curbed that temptation from the start and kept my phone turned off or in my purse until lunchtime. But this need for distractions has manifested itself in another way that doesn’t directly involve my phone. It has effectively chipped away at my capacity to focus for long periods of time. Let me explain.

My job is fast-paced and requires me to keep a lot of balls in the air at once. Naturally that leads to switching from task to task pretty frequently. I’ll be making changes to an order and the phone will ring, or I’ll be looking through a report and an email will pop up on my screen that needs my attention right then and there. But a good chunk of the day revolves around solving problems; trying to dig into an issue and figure out how I am supposed to do something or how it could be done differently.

When I get stuck, instead of pouring my whole efforts into that one thing I find myself looking for excuses to move onto the next task. There’s something about thinking through an issue that my brain doesn’t like.  Anything that isn’t easy or familiar or quick is seen as a threat, so my focus starts shifting to other things that I could be getting done.

When I let these feelings take over I end up going around in circles- starting a difficult task, stopping, starting again and having to remember where I left off, then feeling overwhelmed all over again and taking a break. Instead of getting through the hard stuff throughout the day, I find myself stuck at 3pm trying to muddle through it all. I’ve finished all the random to-dos and now all that’s left are all those tricky problems I kept avoiding. Talk about overwhelming!

One day as I reflected on these bad habits I was forming, I recalled hearing of studies that prove you have more decision- making power earlier in the day. That made sense, but I was starting to feel like I had no decision-making power at all! Why was my brain so lazy all of the sudden?

I had gotten through college just fine, and that had required a ton of studying and and intense focus for long periods of time. I thought of my tendency to be a perfectionist and how that might make me want to put things off. It can be a huge road-block to only want to do things perfectly the first time, especially when learning something new. But I felt it was more than that- almost like an impulse I was barely aware of.

I realized that over time, I had created bad habits when it came to managing my time. In my personal life, my phone served as that distraction I could pick up in a moment’s notice. It was constantly available and ready to be used in an unhealthy way if I allowed it. Any time I had a thought pop in my head that was upsetting or too much to handle at the moment, I could unlock my screen and begin sifting through tweets.

To make matters worse, the type of job I have provides me with an endless amount of distractions. There are always emails piling up, workflows that need to get done and live orders that require attention. All of these tasks are way easier than some of the problems I need to work through to get my job done. The problem is, like my phone, these tasks will always be there. Always competing for attention no matter what I have on my schedule that day.

When I took a step back and started to see this parallel I realized that my brain, if left to it’s own devices, would never want to think about things that require a lot of brain power. It would always default to the easy stuff and keep putting off the things that were hard. By allowing my phone to distract me in my personal life, I was weakening the brain muscles I needed to tackle things that can be challenging at work.

My job would be easier if I just took an issue by the reigns, set timer for 20 minutes and forced myself to work through it. Even if it meant I still didn’t have an answer when the time was up, but I had something concrete I can send on to a manager or coworker, I would have accomplished something. Instead of putting off all of my difficult tasks until the end of the day, I should sprinkle them throughout and let my brain chew on easier things in between.

To build that focus muscle I need to work on this in my personal life too. This means taking time out during the day where my phone is turned off completely and I can focus on the things that matter. Whether it’s ways I can improve myself, goals I want to work on, quiet time with God; I need to re-learn the art of stretching my attention span for as long as possible. I don’t want to spend my days spinning my wheels. If I don’t work on this I’ll end up not accomplishing anything meaningful on a daily basis or even in the next few years.

I haven’t seen any studies on how bad phone habits can impact your work even when your phone is off, but I know it rings true in my own life. Leave a comment below if you’ve experienced something similar and how you are working on it. Also, do your own search on baby guinea pigs, I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Why You Can’t Stop Scrolling

We’ve all seen the articles and research supporting the idea that social media consumption can lead to depression and anxiety. I think most of us understand that social media in of itself isn’t evil. It’s the way we use it (in excess) that causes us trouble. It’s one thing to check it every now and again, but not being able to fall asleep because you are scrolling endlessly through pointless information is a sign of an addiction.

It’s no surprise that younger generations are becoming addicted and spending hours of their day glued to screens. With the prevalence of smart phones, it’s easier than ever to pick up your phone during the idle moments of life and start scrolling through your Instagram feed. Sometimes I catch myself doing this before I even realize it’s happening.

You know it’s bad for you, and you may have even tried limiting the amount of time you spend on these sites. But have you ever stopped to think why it’s so hard to stop scrolling once you start? Turns out, there’s actually a scientific reason for this habit. It’s the absence of “stopping cues” on almost any social media platform these days.

What is a stopping cue?

A stopping cue is basically what it sounds like. A cue that tells your brain to stop. It’s almost like little alarm bell going off in your head telling you that it’s time to move on to something else. These cues can be very obvious and natural. When eating, for example, you stomach tells your brain that it’s full so you know to stop. Your body could also tell you to stop exercising if you’ve done too much by having a body part scream out in pain.

There are also stopping cues in the way we consume literature. While reading a book, each chapter can serve as a way to break up the material and let you choose to come back later if you’d like. Newspapers are broken down into stories, magazines into two-page spreads, etc. Even newer media channels have these cues sprinkled throughout. TV shows break for commercials (which is why they often try to leave the segment with a cliff-hanger so you come back), and are broken down into 30-60 minutes segments. Once your TV show has aired for the week, it’s time to stop until next week.

Social media sites are not like normal websites. They don’t have a finite ending, where you can have the satisfaction of scrolling to the bottom of the page and knowing you’ve read everything. Or going to the menu and picking a topic to focus on. Instead, each site is engineered in such a way that there is no “end.” Your newsfeed is essentially a bottomless pit. The closest you can get to an “ending” on one of these platforms is to scroll all the way to where you ended the last time you were on the site.

The people who make these sites know this and use it to their advantage. They try to suggest more friends to add so that you’ll have more statuses, tweets, pictures, etc to comb through. In order to keep you on even longer, I’ve noticed changes in the algorithms in recent years on Facebook and Instagram that make it even harder to see where you left off last.

Instead of keeping the posts in chronological order they change it around so you essentially can’t mark the last post you read and stop there. If you could do that, you wouldn’t be stuck in the black hole of Twitter for quite as long because seeing a post you’ve already read would essentially serve as a stopping cue.

Even Netflix is trying to get rid of ways you can escape it’s platform. It encourages a new trend in TV consumption called “binging” where you watch 3, 4, 5 or 10 episodes all in one run, depending on how long they are and how much time you are willing to burn. Most of the time the next episode starts almost immediately, and you have to catch it and press pause in order to prevent this. But if you’re like me and you’ve had trouble with social media and/or Netflix in the past, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Why do we need cues?

Newton’s first law of motion ties in nicely with this concept. Objects in motion will stay in motion, and objects at rest will stay at rest. Our brain is a tired, lazy beast that looks for the easy way out most of the time. It does this to prevent burnout and keep you sane, but it can be tricky when you aren’t aware of the shortcuts it’s taking.

A more familiar example of this concept is if you have an already existing habit of hitting the snooze button every morning, the day you try to avoid this will be agony. You will immediately think of a million reasons why you should stay in bed. This is your brain trying it’s best to get you to do what is easy and familiar. A person at rest will stay at rest if your brain can help it.

How does this relate to social media? Most of us by now have a habit of scrolling. We do it in the car, during our breaks at work, when we first wake up in the morning and before we go to bed. it’s something our brain has been programmed to do long ago and is happy to go along with because it requires almost zero brain power. But purposely stopping and doing something else takes work. I have a hard time thinking about something that would be easier for my brain to chew on than social media and Netflix.

Do you catch yourself thinking that you should probably stop scrolling, only to have the voice in your head say, “Oh, but just a few more minutes.” Or, my personal favorite, planning on stopping to do something productive at 8:00 pm, but looking up at 8:05 to see you missed your imaginary deadline…so you think, “Okay, no problem, I will just start at 9:00!” Your brain’s will to stop an activity on it’s own is very limited.

Creating your own cues

Stopping certain activities is a habit that you need to take time to cultivate if you are ever going to get anywhere. All you need to do is create your own stopping cues that force your brain to move on. It could mean turning your phone off an hour before bed so you don’t have the option to scroll all night. Or arranging a time to call your friend at 7:00 pm when you start watching Netflix at 6:00, so you’ll only have time for one episode.

If I am actually trying to get something done but can’t stop scrolling, I go for the pomodoro technique. This method is simply working for 25 minutes with zero distractions and then allowing yourself 5 minutes at the end to relax and browse through Pinterest if you’d like. There are a few free apps you can download that set these 25/5 minute timers for you to make it even more efficient.

When you want to limit the time you spend scrolling on your laptop specifically, there are tools built into your web browser that you can use to block yourself from distracting sites. Remember that these are just suggestions- you know best what your weaknesses are and what roadblocks you can put in the way to keep your brain from scrolling.

Because the creators of these websites know every trick in the book to keep you interested, your efforts to stop will be going against the grain. It will always be an upward battle. But once you start getting more of your free-time back and begin to feel more self aware after some time off from social media, you will never want to go back.

I will help you get started. Right here is your stopping cue: leave a quick comment on this post, then turn off your phone or close your laptop (right this moment) and get out there! 

Why Every College Student should Brain Dump

If you had approached me in college and said I need to “dump my brain,” I probably would have thought you misspoke. I’d think, “What kind of psycho believes it’s okay to let things leak out of their brain during finals? The goal of this place is to literally stuff your brain with as much as it can handle, and then some. Do they not understand how college works?”

Yeah, I was a hot mess during finals week. I’m usually a lot nicer than that, but having your thoughts, worries and to-dos swimming around in a constant swirl during two weeks can do a lot to a person. However, Brain Dumping really can change that. It is an activity that will help you keep everything intact, while also giving your brain a breather and making things more organized. Lucky for me I was open to this weird idea and it is largely credited for keeping me sane during college.

I’m not going to pretend to know the science behind why it works, but let’s just say that “brain dumping” often can help you store more information over time- just in a more efficient way. The object of the activity is to clear your mind of all the to-dos and random information you have floating around and to jot them on paper. It renews your focus, gives your brain a break and allows you to start fresh.

This is a great exercise to do when feeling anxious, stressed or scatter-brained (a feeling that may be vaguely familiar to college students). Honestly, I think it’s a good practice to set in place once a week regardless. Even if you are not going through a stressful time in your life, it’s interesting to see what your brain throws on the paper.

How does it work?

Brain Dumping is as easy and as hard as jotting down every single thought that comes to mind for a span of ten minutes.

Every. Little. Thing.

Think this won’t take ten minutes? You will be surprised to find your hand cramping up when you really get going. Some find it challenging to get started in the beginning, especially if you are not used to journaling or throwing your thoughts on paper. But like anything else, practice makes perfect.

Keep in mind that you are not aiming for full sentences or even a logical order of ideas. I don’t recommend doing this in a neat, journal-y way at all. I typically go for bullet points because I’m trying to jot as many things down as possible within ten minutes. Nothing has to make sense or flow together, it just has to make it’s way onto the sheet. No one else is going to see this paper so it doesn’t need to be pretty by any means, just neat enough for you to read it.

Once your ten minutes are up and you’ve jotted down all you can, you do not have to go any further with this exercise if you choose. Especially if you are pressed for time, the Brain Dump in of itself will provide you with the benefits mentioned above. However, I have found adding a few extra steps makes me feel more at ease and in control.

What comes next?

It helps if after you jot everything down you can forget about the paper for a little while. Let your brain enjoy the heavy load being lifted and go for a quick walk around the block. if you want to give meditating a go this would be the perfect time. The difficult task of clearing you mind has already been done for you!

When I come back to my paper I like to re-read everything I wrote down, looking for any themes in my thoughts. Perhaps you have an exam coming up so a lot of your thoughts are surrounding your fears and to-dos regarding it. Maybe there is a theme or two on the list that surprised you. I know I’ve been caught off guard by things I’ve written down- almost as if I’m unaware of what my brain has been chewing on lately.

Practical uses

For example, maybe I wrote a lot about my prayer life and how I don’t feel I’ve been measuring up lately. What can I do today, however small, to get myself back on track with this? Since I am a journal-er by nature, maybe I need to set aside some time to flesh out these thoughts in a journal entry, or talk about it with a friend.

It’s likely you will find a lot of little tasks that need to be done that found their way onto the paper. Now is a great time to get a formal to-do list started on another sheet of paper. There’s no need for your brain to have to remember it all! This whole process is just about making things simpler for you. We’ve just taken this huge burden off of our brain, let’s not just dump it all back in!

The last step, however optional, is by far my favorite. Once I have gleaned all the information and insights I can out of my Brain Dump, I take the paper and crumble it up (or tear it apart, whichever is more satisfying at the time) and I throw it away. There is nothing more freeing than disposing of all your worries and moving on. Now you have a clear mind, an action plan for any concerns that came up and a single sheet with all of your to-dos. Hear that? it’s your brain breathing a sigh of relief.

 

Finals, Jaw Pain and Negatvity

As I pull into the driveway, my mind races with all of the things I need to do in the next 24 hours. It’s the dreaded finals week and there are simply too many things, I decide.

It’s not until several minutes later when I’m sitting upright on my bed with papers strewn everywhere and my laptop heating up when I notice it- I’m starting to get a headache. While I’m usually stubborn enough to try and “wait it out,” this time I instantly walk to the kitchen and reach for the Tylenol. There is  no way I’m going to let a headache keep me from acing this exam tomorrow, I thought. But when I opened my jaw to take the pills, I was met with pain much worse than my newly discovered headache.

I soon realized that my teeth had been clenched shut so hard and for so long that I no longer realized it was happening and it was now causing me a headache. I tried an old trick that i had learned to see how bad the situation was, “curve your fingers and try to stack three knuckles vertically into your mouth. If you can’t do that, you’ve got a problem,” the Youtuber had said.

My face reddened with pain and embarrassment when my mom walked in right at that moment. It felt like I was trying to beat the Guinness world record for “Number of Fingers Forced Into Mouth” (the record is 30 fingers as of 2011, so close). The strain it was causing was painful and I couldn’t believe that I had led to my own demise by simply clenching my teeth all day.

I took a break from my studies and started to search the web for how to un-clench my jaw and get rid of all this soreness. I found one boring, long, but incredibly helpful video. Luckily, by the end of the video my jaw felt relaxed and I was no longer clenching my teeth.

It dawned on me long after finals week that TMJ pain (which is what the internet had informed me I was experiencing) is similar to despair one can feel after feeding on negative thoughts all day. Paul encourages us to focus on the positive: things that are good, true, etc., but how often do we really do that when we let our thoughts take the driver’s seat for a while?

I know I find myself repeating negative thoughts when I let my mind wander. These thoughts pile up during the day so that by the time I get home from work or class it’s almost impossible to climb out of the stress-filled pit  I’ve dug for myself.

One technique I am using to combat these thoughts can be found in “The Power of Habit” and it is a pair of terms called “awareness training” and “competing response.” Awareness training involves just what you might assume, training yourself to be aware when you are doing an unwanted activity. So whenever I say something negative to myself, I mark a notch on a notecard. At the end of the day, I’ll be able to see how often it happens and I’ll have a better idea of what triggers it because I am paying closer attention.

Competing response is where I replace negative thinking with something else. For me, I am going to try to memorize as much scripture as I can. For now, I will meditate on what Paul says in Philippians 4:8.

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

The second I start to think something negative, the thought will be replaced by these words and positive thoughts until eventually, positivity will be the norm.

But just like TMJ pain, realizing my jaw is clenched during the day only gets me so far. At the end of the day I have to do certain exercises that loosen my jaw so that I don’t clench harder when I’m sleeping or when I’m not paying attention. The same goes for negative thinking. Reading a few bible verses here and there is only good for the short term.  I need to devote time to prayer and bible study that goes beyond just skimming the surface. Once I have done that, my relationship with God will help me make positivity and hope a lifestyle and negativity a healthy exception to the norm.