When was the last time you complained about dealing with too much information? Chances are, it was in the past week, if not the past day. Information overload not only produces a sense of stress and tension, it prevents us from doing our best work. Research by psychologists Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky has demonstrated that people are unable to ignore information that is not relevant to them. Therefore, there is a real neural cost to being presented with information you don’t care about or can’t use. Unfortunately, the world has become filled with this data – from endless pop-up messages to the phone chirps that destroy your train of thought.
Duke economist Dan Ariely has shown that consumers perform better when they can control the type of information they receive when shopping. Is it any wonder, then, that more than 90% of people never look past the first results page of an on-line search? The same thing can be said of the workplace. How can you get your work done when you spend so much time simply managing unwanted information?
So what to do? First, make a list of the information sources that invade your thoughts. These can include Facebook alerts, e-mail alerts, red and green lines that appear in text, and “helpful” hints that pop up when you mouse over them. You won’t get them all at first, but eliminating even a few is a start. Turn off the sound on your devices. These “helpful” chirps and bings have been scientifically designed to capture your attention. Don’t let them. Don’t know how? Ask someone who knows or search online for the solution. (Just don’t watch a cute kitty video or two in the process.)
Stop listening to that voice says, “You’ll miss out on the big deal or the crucial conversation if you don’t stay connected.” Teens call this FOMO – fear of missing out. But you’re not a teen. Take charge of your concentration and turn off the sources of irrelevant information and distraction.
Second, compartmentalize your time. Even in the most chaotic environments, there are some who efficiently manage their tasks and time without getting stressed. Ask how they do it. Chances are, they’ll be happy to share, but just for a couple of minutes. Even committing to something as simple as confining social media and e-mail use to 15 minutes per hour can dramatically improve your concentration and problem solving. And there isn’t anyone out there who can’t wait 45 minutes for a response.
Finally, recognize that social media companies have designed their products to be addictive. That’s their business. (That’s the reason there is no end to a Facebook page.) It’s up to you to recapture and control your use. Interestingly, there is recent research that demonstrates that the use of social media has a negative impact on users’ levels of happiness. This is especially true for young adults.
All this takes self-discipline, of course. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, however. Shutting down all distractions at once will leave you distraught. Research has demonstrated over and over that incremental, but persistent change succeeds where massive change fails. Concerned about the stress and discomfort you may feel? Find out how effective decision makers manage these emotions by reading last week’s blog post. The best decision makers develop the habits of mind to manage their responses to environmental distractions and demands. You can too.