Shallows – Again

by | Jun 1, 2011 | Business

I just finished reading Shallows after hearing Dave’s recommendation earlier this month. What a great read.

Shallows really speaks to me. I’ve noticed and commented to various people over the past few years how my ability to remember and absorb information has changed. I’ve been at Smart Dolphins for over seven years and the difference compared to before I started working here is very noticeable. I always blamed the constant distractions and shifting of attention from one tech issue to the next for my poor memory, but I always said it with a bit of a comedy attached, never really serious or sure if these distractions were the cause. I partially thought I was just getting older, or wondered if my frequent headaches were responsible for slowing my memory and hurting my concentration.

Shallows provides some reason to this phenomenon. We now live in a world that thrives on distraction and multitasking. The internet, email, Facebook, Twitter… all of these things compete for our attention and before long the brain actually begins to function differently. The brain reprograms itself and our ability to concentrate and retain memories IS directly impacted. We skim so much that we don’t give our brains a chance to commit anything to long term memory, and even when we aren’t skimming our brains have become so conditioned to forget that it is still harder to learn and retain information than it used to be.

Shallow thinking also leads to shallow learning. Googling and skimming and resolving has led to a lot of people in the tech industry who we wouldn’t really call experts. They rely too much on their Googling skills and too little on their own ability to troubleshoot and isolate a problem. Obviously quick access to information is critical in the world that we live in, and tools like Google are critical to the success of almost any company nowadays, but I have to wonder who would be left standing if we removed those tools for a while. We’d all be impacted, sure, but the deeper thinkers would be much more successful than the shallow ones. Those who manage to read a book every few weeks would thrive because they would actually know stuff.

I miss the deep style of learning, absorbing and reading that I used to have to do back in college. The internet was still massive then but it was nothing like it is now. We didn’t all live on it. I used to have such a penetrating interest in things. My mind was a sponge. It didn’t require the effort that it does now.

I’m hoping to use some of the concepts in the book to ‘retrain’ my brain. Not completely, but I would like to get some of my old way of thinking back. Step one is just managing some of the bad habits that I have, like checking my email every 5 minutes. I started this exercise today by making a few modifications to my work environment.

  • My speakers are off
  • Outlook notifications are completely off. I see no popups, no bubbles, and no envelopes.
  • I’ve changed Outlook so that it only checks for email every 10 minutes, rather than instantaneously.
  • All distractions or notifications that I can think of with other programs have been turned off. Chat windows no longer blink, or make noise, etc.

That’s a start. I guess I’ll see what happens.