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5 Ways to Keep the Internet from Destroying Your Brain

These tips will help you improve your online efficiency, and reduce the stress that so often accompanies multitasking and information overload.

Human beings are creatures of habit, and nowhere is the force of habit more apparent than in the way most of us use the Internet. Few of us are disciplined enough to go online, do one thing, and log off. While it may be fun to keep updating our Facebook profiles or repeatedly accessing our various feeds throughout the day or merrily multitasking round the clock, researchers are beginning to document the emotional and psychological price we're paying for doing so. But the good news is that feeling overwhelmed and lost online isn't an inevitable consequence of living in the Internet Age—we can change how we behave when we go on online and how we interact with the web.

Mindfulness training is a particularly handy tool for helping us become more aware of our relationship with the Internet. It provides a number of effective ways to reduce the feelings of stress and anxiety that arise from trying to organize and keep track of too much information at once. The tips below will help you be more present when using the Internet, improve your online efficiency, and reduce the stress that so often accompanies multitasking and information overload.

1. The STOP Technique

Psychologist Elisha Goldstein has developed the STOP technique—adapted from cognitive-behavioral research—to relieve the feeling of being overwhelmed by too much information by bringing your mind back to what you really want to be doing. This technique is especially helpful when you find yourself "lost" online, or you've forgotten what you were searching for. The steps of the technique are:

S—Stop your online browsing or put your e-mail checking on hold.

T—Take a normal, full breath. "Breathe naturally and follow your breath coming in and out of your nose," advises Goldstein. "You can even say to yourself 'in' as you're breathing in and 'out' as you're breathing out, if that helps with concentration."

O—Observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Goldstein notes, "You can reflect about what's on your mind and also notice that thoughts aren't facts and they aren't permanent. Just notice the thought, let it be, and continue on. Notice any emotions that are there and name them. Recent research out of UCLA says that just naming your emotions can have a calming effect. Then notice your body. How is your posture? Any aches and pains?"

P—Proceed with something that will support you in the moment, whether that's talking to a friend, taking a two-minute break from what you were doing online, or running through a quick relaxation script in your mind. The key is that you need to feel good about the very next thing you do, and then you can get back to what you were doing after a couple of minutes.

2. Reduce Information Intake

A big problem in Internet use is the inability to stop pursuing random paths of interest. If you focus on what you need, rather than on what others think you want, you may be surprised at how much you streamline your time online and make it more productive. For instance, if you're looking for reviews of different cell phones, don't get bogged down in off-topic threads on a forum that has nothing to do with the cell phone you're interested in. If you want the answer to a scientific question, write down possible keywords, Google them, and stay on topic. Bookmark things that are "off-topic" for later investigation, if you're interested.

3. Distinguish Between Work-Oriented and Personal Tasks

Many of us blur the distinction between "working" online and "having fun" online—toggling back and forth between the two. You do this when you mix shopping for a birthday present with finishing a weekly report or case study. Most people aren't good multitaskers and don't switch gears as readily as they switch web pages. Blurring the line between work and play means that neither is effective—you'll take much longer getting your work done, and probably you'll have less fun.

Divide your time online between "work-oriented tasks" and "personal or social tasks," being mindful of which task session you're in and sticking to it throughout your time online. One way to stay mindful is to keep a reminder in sight of whether you're concentrating on work or pleasure. Simple Post-It notes on your monitor work just fine.

4. Set Time Limits

If we're receiving information 24 hours a day, we give our brains no time to relax, to change modes, to just have fun. It just isn't good to always be "on-call" for new information in every moment or situation. We all know colleagues who don't turn off their cell phones during family events or when seeing a show. They believe that being reachable at every moment of the day, every day, is more important than relaxing or spending time with loved ones. Unless you're the president of the United States (or his equivalent elsewhere), you have no need to be "on" and online 24/7.

Keep your eye on your computer's clock, and make a mental note of when you began your online session. Keep track of what you're doing and how long you're spending on each task. Setting time limits helps keep you present, and prevents you from losing track of the time.

Consider keeping a task list for each time you sit in front of the computer. List no more than five specific items you want to accomplish for that online session, and allocate time for each. Your list might look like this:

-Check and reply to e-mail (10 minutes).

-Look up information on __________ (5 minutes).

-Update Facebook page and reply to Facebook inbox (5 minutes).

-Browse global and local news headlines on Google News (10 minutes).

5. Chunk Your Information

If you take in every bit of information with equal attention, it becomes harder to sort and track. Our brains don't process large amounts of random information well, but we can take in more if it's grouped—what psychologists call "chunking."

In the United States, we group our telephone numbers into three segments—a 3-digit area code, a 3-digit prefix, and a 4-digit suffix. This method divides a 10-digit number into easily managed "chunks" of information that our brains can store more easily for long-term use. You can use the same method for keeping track of new information. Organize it into smaller, more easily managed chunks, and you'll find it'll stick longer.

For instance, you can more quickly and easily locate saved web addresses by organizing them into logical subfolders in your Favorites or Bookmarks area, rather than using one long unorganized list. You can do the same with e-mails—using labels and automatic filtering to move e-mails into their respective organizational bins or folders for future action.

None of This Will Stop Information Flow

These suggestions won't stop the (over)flow of information from invading our lives—only we can do that. But we can make a conscious choice about how we spend our time online and consume the information available. By staying present and focused on our immediate online needs, we no longer have to feel that we're at the mercy of the Internet. Remember that change takes time, but with some patience, and a lot of repetition, you too can find yourself using the Internet in a more mindful manner.

John M. Grohol, Psy.D., is an expert in online psychology and behavior, a developer, researcher, author, and founder of one of the leading mental health networks online today, PsychCentral.com, named one of the 50 Best Websites of 2008 by TIME.com.