Posted by: Susan | April 1, 2011

How Do You Deal With Information Overload?

I don’t know . . .maybe “it” happened when I turned 50.  Or, maybe when the kids left home and I found myself an empty nester.     But these last few years, I’ve had a feeling of being less and less able to deal with the tidal wave of information coming at me.    I think I’m on information overload!  Somewhere I heard the average working American has 3.6 zetta-bytes of information coming at them every year;  for most of us that means 100,000 words every day.  Just think of it . . .100,000 words!    That’s a 350% increase over people’s exposure in 1980!   Wow.   I knew there was a reason I loved 1980.  Life was simpler then.  It was the year after I was married.   It was a time that I could sit and focus . . . taking things in clearly and steadily.   Finishing one thing before I moved on to the next one . . .did I mention no kids yet?

Some days I think I’m drowning in data.  Work emails, home emails, cell phone calls, land line calls, the Internet, my Blackberry, the TV, the radio I have playing in the background all day in my office,  magazines, newspapers, and newsletters both online and at my door.  Oh, and let’s not forget the tons of snail mail that still comes every day.  The other evening I went on the Internet to find something.  Next thing I knew I’d spent two hours reading about other interesting things, while totally forgetting what I was first looking for!   I find if I don’t write things down,  and I live by my lists, I can’t get anything done.    What happened to focus?  Could I be losing my mind? 

The good news, according to Future Shock author Alvin Toffler, is I’m definitely sane.   The bad news is my brain is being forced to process information at a much higher volume than it was built to handle.  Toffler called it “cognitive overstimulation.”  I call it exhausting.  No wonder I sometimes feel anxious, unproductive and oddly tired after a day of sitting alone in my office . . .thinking “what did I really accomplish today?”  Forty years after Toffler uncovered the issue, scientists are beginning to uncover the fallout.  For example, they say that those who attempt to perform two different tasks simultaneously end up doing neither very well and those of us who pride ourselves on being great multi-taskers “don’t get a deeper understanding of information.”  One study shows a 10-point drop in IQ scores after constant distractions from e-mail, text messaging, and cell phones.  Well!  I feel better now!  I practically REFUSE to use text messaging.

A DISTRACTED LIFE?

The amount of time the average person spent on social networking sites increased from two hours, ten minutes for the month of December 2007 to more than five and a half hours for December 2009. I wonder what it is now.  During the month of November 2009, web users in the U.S. spent an average of 66 hours online and visited 2,603 websites for an average time of less than a minute.  Currently, among U.S. mobile phone users, 66% send text messages.  The average teenager sends 3,705 per month.  As of this past February, Apple offered more than 300,000 apps for its mobile users.*

Seriously, if you’re having more days than you’d like feeling heightened anxiety, lower energy and lack of focus, here’s an idea I got from Minneapolis-based writer Frank Bures, whose work has appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, the L.A. Times and The Rotarian.  (With those credentials, he must know something about all this, huh?)

The idea:  Spend one day (or at minimum a part of a day), every week, totally unplugged.   That’s right!  Unplugged!  No email, no text messages, no phone calls.  And NO Internet!   Frank says that at first, we’re going to feel pretty strange.  Cold.  Alone.  Worried that someone will call or send us an email, wondering why we haven’t responded.  But he says to hang in there.  The world will NOT come to an end, and instead, the most amazing thing will happen.  We’ll be able to finish small projects we’ve been putting off.  We’ll be able to review things that need to be done, get organized, and enjoy a sense of having space in our heads for new ideas.   And by the end of the unplugged day or part of a day, we’ll feel something we haven’t felt in a long time:  a sense of accomplishment.  The next day, we’ll wake up refreshed!  Best of all, when we finally log back “on” to see what we’ve missed, we’ll be surprised to find we haven’t missed much.  At first, we’ll have to train ourselves to unplug.  It’s like an old habit that takes practice and persistence to overcome.  But over time, it gets much easier.  And flexibility is key:  some weeks we’ll have to switch our “unplugged” days.  

Well, thanks to Frank, I’m game to get started.  Wish me luck!

*Sources:  The Nielsen Company, Apple

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