Suffering From Digital Overload? Find The Remedy Here
That's how long the average person spends devouring data on televisions, computers, smartphones, and tablets each day. And much of it amounts to nothing more than "empty calories." Rather than adding value to our organizations and lives, constant connectivity often distracts us from pursuing meaningful work. Digital overload kills focus. Is the only solution to pull the plug? Or is there another way to reclaim some of those seven hours?
An Epidemic of Infobesity
It's clear we have a voracious appetite for digital media:
- Between 2013 and 2015, the total amount of time we spend consuming digital media has increased 49 percent.
- Time spent on smartphones increased 90 percent and, on tablets, 64 percent.
- Even the dinosaur of the digital world saw growth, as desktop consumption grew by 16 percent, "suggesting mobile is adding to desktop media consumption, not replacing it."
In other words, we're eating more - and we're eating from multiple plates. The problem is that we can't digest it all. The average smartphone user, for instance, checks their phone over 214 times a day; while the average employee checks email 36 times a day, along with at least 40 websites.
Bain and Company's Paul Rogers, Rudy Puryear, and James Root explain, "[W]e human beings can process only so much data. An uncontrollable flood of it overwhelms us, and we feel stressed. Our systems shut down, and our capacity to absorb additional information actually decreases."
At the same time, it's difficult to escape from connectivity. As psychologist Larry Rosen and online engagement expert Alexandra Samuel write in "Conquering Digital Distraction," "All day and night... we're bombarded with so many messages and alerts that even when we want to focus, it's nearly impossible. And when we're tempted to procrastinate, diversions are only a click away."
And a frequent click at that.
Fighting Digital Distraction
Research shows that knowledge workers spend 25 percent of their time trying to manage "huge and growing data streams," a cost organizations can ill afford to bear. The question for leaders is how do you begin to tame the flood of data?
Drs. Rosen and Samuel offer differing advice for combating digital overload and infobesity.
Turn It Off
Before you have a coronary, Dr. Rosen is suggesting you turn it off sometimes. Despite study after study confirming that digital overload reduces productivity, increases distractions, and encourages multitasking (which wastes time), we have an incredibly difficult time disconnecting. Why?
According to Rosen, it isn't that we're addicted. It's that we suffer from one of the following "forms of anxiety that border on obsession or compulsion:"
- FOMO. Fear of missing out.
- FOBO. Fear of being offline.
- Nomophobia. Fear of being out of mobile phone contact.
We have to stay connected. What if we don't answer a text immediately? What if we don't get an email notification right away? Clearly, we'll be fired, we'll lose a key client, our companies will fail, and the world will probably end. Or at least that's what it can feel like. Dr. Rosen suggests three steps to dealing with this 21st century malaise:
- Go Off-Grid. After you check your e-communcations (texts, emails, DMs, IMs, etc.), shut them down. Silence your phone. And work. After 15 minutes, give yourself a one-minute tech break. Then go back to work. Repeat. It's going to be uncomfortable at first - but then you'll find yourself able to go hours - hours! - off-grid.
- Recharge yourself. Our brains seem to work in 90 minute cycles, both when we're asleep and awake. Every 90 minutes, then, take time to recharge. Put your phone away, or better yet get away. Take a walk outside, listen to some music, pop a few yoga poses.
- Put digital technology to bed. Your devices emit blue LED light, which releases neurotransmitters that stimulate your brain and impede sleep. If you can, do not view digital material for an hour before you go to sleep. If you can't make that leap yet, dim your screen and position yourself 14 inches from it. When you're ready to sleep, leave the devices out of your bedroom.
Dr. Rosen concludes that to break the digital distraction cycle, "we must limit the use of our devices. Only then can we regain our ability to focus."
From Distraction to Decision
As a "digital explorer," Dr. Samuel's stance contrasts Dr. Rosen's. "'Turning off'," she argues, "is simply not a tenable solution in the digital age; with so much work, communication, and socializing taking place on screens, few of us can afford to be off-line for significant portions of the workday - or even evenings and weekends."
Technology isn't the problem. It's how we use it that's costing us. The first step in managing digital overload, says Samuel, is realizing that you cannot - and don't have to - keep up. The idea that you need to be able to process all of your emails, every article relevant to your field, every social media post is not only ridiculous - it's holding you back.
"Instead your goals should be to sort and limit the information you receive and to streamline the work of reading, responding, and sharing." How? By fighting fire with fire. That is, tame technology with technology. How?
- Take aim at your inbox. According to Atlassian, fielding constant email reduces your IQ by 10 points. Not only that, it takes 16 minutes to refocus after handling an incoming email. To combat this, use filters to ensure priority emails reach you immediately while less important materials (e.g. newsletters, receipts) are diverted to folders, where they can wait for your perusal.
- Consume news wisely. Staying abreast of industry trends and events that may impact our work is critical - and time-consuming as you scour multiple websites for news, opinions, and thought leadership. Using a newsreader like Feedly, Flipboard, and Reeder empowers you to create a veritable one-stop-shop for the topics that matter to you.
- Socialize smarter. Maintaining an active social presence takes a serious investment of time - even if you don't succumb to temptation and wander around the social landscape, catching up with friends, gossip, and events. To minimize time spent - and time wasted - try an automated helper such as HootSuite. From this dashboard, you can manage multiple accounts, monitor multiple streams, monitor chatter, pre-schedule posts, and share information easily.
Dr. Samuel posits that instead of distracting us, digital overload can help us hone our ability to focus. It "forces us to make constant, explicit choices about what will and won't get our attention." Using the aforementioned tools can help us do that and develop practices that eliminate distraction, digital or otherwise.
Which of these techniques do you think will help you reclaim some of those 444 minutes - and put them to better use? Will you take a break or fight fire with fire? Or will you continue to get swept up in the continual flood of data? Your choice.