When was the last time you experienced information hunger? Unless you travel to parts of the world where civilisation has not yet reached, or go camping, you have probably forgotten what it is like. But you are almost certainly familiar with the feeling of information overload. This condition is fraught with nervous exhaustion, reduced efficiency and creativity. Fortunately, you can resist the barrage of information.
“We are forced to think about everything at once, and this does not allow us to pay proper attention to what is really important” – this quote from The Observer is quite descriptive of the state of affairs in 2019, but it dates back to the mid-19th century, a time when information suddenly became widely available. With the advent of the telegraph, for the first time in history, the speed of information dissemination began to exceed the speed of decision-making.
At first everyone was very happy about this, but over time, the constant “On” mode of information became a serious stressor. Many people began to experience a previously unknown condition called neurasthenia gravis. Neurologist George Miller Beard described it as “an overload of nerve circuits”. Constant real-time communication made the world too complex, and it happened too fast. And the only prescription that can help is simplification.
Advances in technology have fundamentally changed the way we work. Today’s ability to create information is unimaginable to people of the 19th century. By 2020, the world’s digital information will be approximately 40 zettabytes – 40 trillion gigabytes. Each of us consumes about 34 gigabytes of information every day – that’s like swallowing 100,000 words a day. The overabundance of information leads to cognitive overload and impairs the ability to concentrate on work and think creatively.
But the good news is that a few simple steps can help you resist the barrage of information right now, today.
1. Prioritise and be relentless
You’ll have to start by doing a complete audit of what needs to be done tomorrow. Make a to-do list and underline the most important ones. The to-do’s that you haven’t ticked off are a good place to start: if you can, just cross them off the list.
The next step is to ruthlessly cut off all information that is irrelevant or interferes with important tasks. If, while working on them, you feel that you are being sucked into a whirlpool of information and are about to drown, go back to the priority list.
2. Create your “architecture of choice”
Managing yourself is not easy: how can you resist the temptation to distract yourself from a boring report and read the message that just came in? Choice architecture, simply put – restrictions, can help. For example, when working on a complex and important task, you can switch off notifications on your phone or close the messenger window on your computer for a couple of hours. When the time is up, you can check your Inbox and reply to all messages. Not only does this save time, but it also reduces stress. When I need to focus on a creative task, I use the “offline” mode. This way I let my colleagues know that I’m physically in the office, but busy doing something important.
3. Give yourself permission to be bored
The key is to intentionally allow yourself to be bored. When your attention isn’t focused on a to-do list, growing email chains, or the news, fresh associations and new patterns are born in the brain. If brilliant thoughts haven’t popped into your head in a while, it’s probably because you’re not letting your mind wander.
Next time you’re in a car service or airport lounge, put your smartphone away and let yourself get bored. You’ll see: your brain will delight you with a non-boring idea. After all, as Pascal said, “all the problems of mankind are due to man’s inability to sit quietly in one room.”