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Radio Replay: Life, Interrupted

A man juggles work on his computer and cell phone simultaneously.

Many of us react to the buzzes and beeps that come from our phones with the urgency of a parent responding to a baby's cry. We can't help but pick up our phone and look at the latest notification. This probably isn't the healthiest nor the sanest response to a vibrating hunk of a metal, so we tell ourselves we should be less distracted. We shouldn't be so gripped by social media and the churn of work email.

Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World ,says the problems created by constant interruption are "more urgent than people realize."

By letting email and other messages guide our workday, Cal says we're weakening our ability to do the most challenging kinds of work—what he calls "deep work." Deep work requires sustained attention, whether the task is writing marketing copy or solving a tricky engineering problem.

We're also denying ourselves the satisfaction that often comes from committing our full attention to a task. Replying to a string of emails rarely arouses this same feeling.

This week on Hidden Brain, we look at how to cultivate deep attention and what we gain when we immerse ourselves in meaningful work. We also explore a potential shortcut that one lab is testing. Researchers at George Mason University's Human Factors and Applied Cognition research lab are using brain stimulation to help people manage multitasking and interruptions. Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam gets electrodes strapped to his head to try it out.

Read More:

"Reducing the Disruptive Effects of Interruptions With Noninvasive Brain Stimulation," Human Factors,2015.

"Modulation of complex multitask performance by tDCS depends on individual differences in baseline task ability," Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 2016 Annual Meeting 42, 2016.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.