Are you letting digital devices overwhelm you and eat away at your ability to focus and concentrate? Is technology really saving you time and energy – like it’s supposed to do – or is it running rampant, creating unnecessary work?
Most of us are bombarded by messages, texts, alerts, and buzzed throughout the day with rings, chirps, and dings, making it difficult to concentrate on crucial information. With the slightest urge to procrastinate, we’re never more than a click away from diversion.
This 24/7 connected culture is taking its toll professionally as well as personally. We waste time, attention, and energy on extraneous information and interactions, staying busy but producing little of real value.
The Information Overload Research Group estimates that knowledge workers in the US waste 25% of their time dealing with too much information, costing the economy $997 billion annually.
Smart, productive people know they must manage their devices and data, or else information streams will drown them.
Digital Addiction or Anxiety
In a Harvard Business Review article, “Conquering Digital Distraction,” psychologist Larry Rosen at the University of California, Dominguez Hills, suggests the overuse of digital devices is not so much an addiction as a response to fear-based anxieties, such as the following:
- FOMO: the fear of missing out
- FOBO: the fear of being offline
- Nomophobia: the fear of being out of phone contact
In the information age, knowledge has power and those who stay ahead of the data stream are perceived as smarter and more capable. This demands that you manage the content, analyze it, and put it into perspective so you can apply what’s valuable while discarding the rest.
Digital devices and information streams aren’t going away; they’re only growing and multiplying along with their complexity. You have to understand how to use them strategically if you want to guard your ability to focus and concentrate on your most important tasks, both on and offline.
Human Brains and Multitasking
The fact is, the brain doesn’t handle more than one problem well. Although we can certainly walk and chew gum at the same time, we can’t pay attention to simultaneous problems. Instead, the brain must switch tasks, using uptime and energy. When task switching is not done well, time is wasted and mistakes are made.
One such research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, found that “Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffered a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” The report termed this new “infomania” a serious threat to workplace productivity.
Another study at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers. They found that it took an average of 20 minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or emails and to return to their original task.
Studies show that doing two things at the same time can be done well only when one task is automatic. So you can:
- Listen to a podcast while driving, but not with good retention or learning.
- Answer email while on a conference call, but not without lowering quality.
- Look at your Facebook feed while eating lunch, most likely without problems.
- Do your expense report while watching YouTube, but expect errors.
There are two approaches recommended to get back in the driver’s seat to win the attention wars:
- Systematically limit or reduce access to information streams.
- Make use of technological tools to strategically manage information.
Smart Use of Tech Tools
Some recommend that knowledge workers restrict time and access to digital content; however, when it comes to responding to emails and social media updates that concern customers and business reputations, we don’t always have a choice.
We can recognize that not all messages need immediate responses, and learn to prioritize tasks. For example, email filters can be set up so that certain subjects may be handled first.
Outlook, Gmail, and most other major email tools will allow you to set rules and filters to ensure that only the most essential messages reach you right away. Newsletters, purchase receipts, social media updates, and messages on which you are copied can be accessed later. Then designate an hour every day to review these folders.
You can also use news feeds such as RSS or newsreader apps such as Feedly, Reeder, or Flipboard to group articles and blog posts by topics. You can’t read everything in your field, nor do you need to, but you can stay current by regularly reviewing what others are writing.
The important thing is to manage content on your schedule, when you have the time and attention to devote to each topic.
Managing Social Media
Building professional credibility and reaching out to others can be enhanced by social media sites and specific interest groups. Yet it can be a time monster. You need to automate as much as possible.
Several tools offer an efficient way to post to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook: Hootsuite, Buffer, and Social Inbox are popular with overloaded executives. These tools allow you to reach multiple networks and schedule updates and posts in advance.
The War for Attention
The question of why we are willing to fracture our attention and risk errors remains unanswered. There is perhaps some pride in believing we are able to multitask in order to prove our cognitive prowess, but it can also be fear driven.
Winning the battle over distractions may be a long uphill fight, but as we gain access to more and more tools, we can adapt better skills to maintain our focus.