Career Woman

Why unplugging is not enough: Productivity in the modern age

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My background is philosophy and psychology with a specialization in cognitive science within the context of entrepreneurism and professional efficiency. There are thousands of articles that explore the topic of mental efficiency and professional productivity in the modern era through promoting practices of mindfulness, meditation, and physical activity. The content within these subjects is great and covers a vast array of perspectives, however, I am coming to notice a blind spot in the train of thought found therein.

In this era of instant messages, 24-hour email, and the infinitude of information available online, practices like meditation, exercise, and meditation are all excellent mediators of the negative effects associated with this constant barrage of information, however, I believe the majority of the content that purports these strategies falls short in one key area and constitute a sort of blind spot in this discussion. The blind spot is where all of our blind spots tend to originate, that is, in how we think about the topic. My concern is that we are incorrectly placing curative power on strategies of prevention, which causes us to view these preventative strategies as long-term solutions. I will argue that whether these preventative strategies are successful in the long term or not, is not a result of the validity of the strategy, but instead is a function of how well our mind applies integrative learning to apply the strategy to our minute-to-minute life.

The interconnected mind

Integrative learning is a concept made popular by education psychologists to describe the best practices of students wherein they assimilate information across their varied curriculum, so that the collective sum of the learning would be greater than the sum of their learning in each individual class. The study and popularity of this concept is usually applied to early levels of education, and to undergraduate studies, though it is more often a concept of rapport in liberal arts programs, who are more philosophically aligned with the concept of integrative learning.

The popularity of integrative learning as an applied concept, however, becomes less and less prevalent within the context of top-end education programs and professional life, because there is an implicit assumption that by these points in life both students and professionals have begun to specialize in a single area, rather than constantly diving into different areas of an evolving and diverse curriculum. But we already know that the constant exposure to near-infinite information and technology is already changing the brain. One study demonstrated that a particular brain-wave, called alpha oscillation, is directly associated with processes related to attention and is directly affected by exposure to the internet and technology, and another study explored how the internet is training our minds to pay attention to distractions and remove us from attentiveness of our immediate environment.

The issue here is that in this age of information ad infinitum, the human mind has never before been exposed to such varied and expansive information, and I believe that because of this, the concept of integrative learning has never been more important. Ironically, to see an example of this we need only look to the internet, which often acts as a mirror image of how our own minds work and reveals trends in how we think, and the trend of importance here is that of meta-review. If you look at how sites like Metacritic or Rave Reviews function, they act as a cumulative review of information, which is exactly how integrative learning functions in our brains. We learn from countless perspectives online or in person, and our mind works to assimilate this information in accordance with its relation to our lives and daily pursuits.

A common sense solution

And this is exactly where the blind spot occurs in modern self-improvement practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and exercise. If you find that stress is the main hindrance in your professional and personal life, unplugging from the world and meditating for 30 minutes a day might work for you, but if it doesn’t it might be because you just haven’t fully learned how to integrate it into your daily life. Whether it’s exercise, meditation, or mindfulness practice, if you view it as your sole stress-reliever and look forward to your few moments of peace throughout your work day, then you are inadvertently bricking yourself into an ‘if-then’ framework wherein if you aren’t able to reach that relief, you will continue to be stressed.

This is due to the preventative nature of these popular practices of self-improvement and stress relief. You can’t meditate during a contentious conference call unless you’re the second coming of Buddha, and you can’t really exercise at a board meeting without making some bad impressions. What you can do is integrate what you learn from your self-improvement practice, whatever that practice may be.

Personally, meditation is my outlet, and I integrate it into my daily routine by applying the neutral awareness of thought to situations that might otherwise be exorbitantly stressful. Monitoring my energy throughout the day is crucial, because humans simply were not built to be “on” from daylight to sundown. If exercise is your thing you might want to start taking the stairs, or take walking breaks throughout the day. You might not be able to take even a whole minute to yourself, but if you take the inevitable micro breaks throughout your day as opportunities to apply what you have learned from your self-improvement practice you will see more consistent improvements while simultaneously breaking complete reliance on the practice itself.

A lot of this may seem like common sense, and that’s because it is. There’s no reason that self-improvement needs to be relegated to a single activity, but when it is, you lock yourself into a mental framework of expectation where you can’t experience the outcome you want until you do x, y, or z–and many of us fall into this trap without even realizing it. Our brain is the most amazing technology after all; it’s a problem solver above all else. If you’re struggling with self-improvement or productivity, try shifting your awareness away from your self-improvement activities and instead focus on your minute-to-minute life — you might just find your mind knows exactly what to do.

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