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Beating information overload: the insider’s guide

Feel like you will drown in digital dung (holding a few pixelated jewels aloft) if your attention fractures further? Are you reading this in a tab-riddled browser with an overflowing inbox, stuffed downloads folder, one eye on Twitter and the other on Facebook?

If only the clattering of the keyboard and the tapping of touchscreens would stop for a little while, eh? If you just got a little bit dreamy about that sentiment, get your gloves on, we’re stepping into the ring. Cue the Rocky theme song, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger .

Seriously, let’s get an endorphin spike started. Put your headphones in or turn up the volume, play the song, have a stretch if you haven’t moved in a few hours.

Stay with me. Megabytes will be shed but keep your mouthguard in. If you’re in a genuine rush, scan for the bits in bold. (It really will be more fun if you play this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btPJPFnesV4 in the background though…)

Round 1 — An old idea in a shiny new suit

Information overload isn’t new. First-century Roman philosopher Seneca complained about multiple books (scrolls) as a source of distraction. He scoffed at intellectuals who bought lots of scrolls and never read them.

For centuries any sort of scroll-hoarding remained a concept only applicable to the truly elite. Then possession of the printed word moved from the cloistered towers of power. A furore erupted at the advent of the Gutenberg Press. Of course, our contemporary information deluge is even more pervasive.

In his book, How to Thrive in the Digital Age , Tom Chatfield highlights we are now moving towards a default state of being connected digitally . Mobile computing, he says, penetrates all time now (not just our leisure) so we need to be vigilant about how we apportion our attention.

“Until we realise there’s a new default, we can’t choose better,” Chatfield said.

There’s no argument technology is evil but there’s merit in knowing it’s not necessarily neutral. Email wants you to keep sending email. Twitter wants you to keep tweeting, etc. Chatfield urges us to actively choose how we want to spend our time, ensuring it includes ‘plugged’ and ‘unplugged’ components . Technology should aid our desires, rather than hijack them.

So, becoming truly conscious of the digital system around us is the first step in ousting information overload. When choosing how we interact with this system, it’s useful to know why we keep consuming information in the first place, aside from general curiosity…

Round 2 — What we’re really fighting

We’re sparring with ancient neurochemistry. Dopamine. It’s well armed.

The pioneering research of University of Michigan professors Kent Berridge and Terry Robinson broke the traditional association of dopamine with pleasure. They showed dopamine causes us to want/seek out and it’s actually the opioid system which kicks in when we like something.

Behavioural psychologist Dr Susan Weinschenk wrote a 2012 article based on their work, .

In an environment of scarcity it was a good evolutionary tool to reward the search for food and sex but dopamine isn’t only related to physical urges: its release is sparked by the abstract too, like the hunt for ideas and knowledge . We’re chemically rewarded when we learn. Crushingly for our contemporary selves, the dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system. We can endlessly seek without being sated.

Dr Weinschenk identifies the ‘dopamine loops’ prompted by our digital tools. They instantly gratify our desire to seek.

“The dopamine system is most powerfully stimulated when the information coming in is so small that it doesn’t fully satisfy. A short text or twitter…is ideally suited to send your dopamine system raging,” Dr Weinschenk said.

So when we feel like we can’t stop browsing, updating, refreshing, tweeting…it’s thanks to a neurochemical cocktail from the past. We need to break the dopamine loops by switching off cues for them. One way to do this is by turning off notifications (across devices, email and websites). It dampens our anticipation of these information nuggets.

Round 3 — Healthy habits

When we’re fully aware of the digital world and the neurostimulants it engenders, we’re better able to identify loops we get caught in and choose our actions accordingly.

In his book, The Information Diet , Clay Johnson proposes we take responsibility for our consumption of information and begin to mindfully consume quality content .

“What you want to do is develop a framework for yourself where you can consume deliberately and consume consciously and have control over your information intake, like you have control over your food intake,” says Johnson.

If you’re going to digitally snack, do so with awareness.

Round 4 — The knockout strategy

Here’s the secret to keeping your nerve amid the mayhem: you kick that pernicious fear. Which one? The one that says you’ll miss out. The one that says you’ll look stupid if you don’t know all the things , and you can only know all the things if you’re online. (Irony noted :-))

If something is truly important (or threatening) you’ll hear about it through friends, family or strangers talking at the bus stop… Cutting information overload and minimising digital clutter provides more space to put important things IN your life. You’re not missing out.

    1. The internet vortex deflection

      Open a new internet browser window. This will be the new central trove for interesting sites and web-based miscellanea that catch your eye while doing something else online. (It’s always open but usually minimised.) Use tabs within this window for each page and keep it separate from other browser window/s you’re using for work. Transfer any pages you want to keep for review that are not relevant to your current work, to this window.

      Now you can capture what’s piqued your interest, without having to give it your attention now. You can stay more focused on your task at hand. Use this window for any fun stuff you find when going through emails too. When you next want to browse with abandon on a break, revisit what you’ve already found here first. (Delete tabs in this window with abandon too if you were a bit click-hungry in the first place. Notice what you do and don’t read.) Enjoy. Close the tab when you’re done. Revel in the sense of minor triumph. Oh, and before you download any more items…

    2. Dealing with downloads

      Create a folder on your desktop called ‘To Explore’. Save all future downloads in this folder. Put downloads you’re yet to attend to (but definitely want to read/use/watch) in this folder too. Once you’re done with any file in To Explore, delete it or save it elsewhere. Nothing stays here once it’s finished with but in the meantime, you’ve a trove to dip into when the urge to seek engulfs you. Play with what you’ve already caught instead of adding to it. Be mindful of what you put in here from the start.

    3. Ousting email intrusions

      Empty your inbox. (You knew the big guns had to come out at some point, eh?)

      • Red flag items needing urgent attention (i.e within 24 hours otherwise there’s a drastic consequence)
      • Yellow flag non-urgent items needing reply.
      • Ruthlessly unsubscribe to everything that doesn’t add significant value to your personal or business life, before deleting it.
      • Mark spam that’s made it to your inbox as junk.
      • Delete or archive everything else.
      • Move all the yellow flagged items into a folder marked ‘to action’ and attend to them for 10 minutes each day until the folder is empty.
      • Now you only have red-flagged items in your inbox. Hint: this may be a good time to deal with them .
      • Repeat the steps above as new mail arrives. Only check your inbox twice per day, maximum. Others will cope. You can breathe again.
    1. Banning the butterfly

      Choose two social media platforms. Shine there. Let the others go. Truly. Your real friends still care. Your business will survive. Focus on the quality of what you’re sharing.

    2. Finding the zone

      Close or minimise as much on your screen as possible. Ditch the dopamine loops. Knock the notifications on the head. Practise using your digital device with clear intention and a time allocation. For example, write 500 words; research XYZ for 30 minutes; use and review social media for 1 hour. Time yourself. Use a phone, watch, whatever you’ve got. Or, . If you want a distractionless space to write in, try ‘single-tasking’ with the beautifully-crafted OmmWriter.

    Round 5 — Beating the comeback threat

    “When you’ve been in screenworld for a long time, you really lose touch with the third dimension. The rooms were so still and silent, everything in them so frustratingly inert and noninteractive. I could feel my mind crawling at the surfaces of things, looking for movement, novelty, feedback. Why isn’t that coffee table searchable?”

    William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry

    I’m no saintly digital diva. I don’t mind admitting this all takes practise. Between writing two of the paragraphs in ‘Round 4 — The knockout strategy’, I inadvertently (but ultimately mindfully) cleaned up my music collection via TuneUp . I also had to put my smart phone face down in a drawer in another room. If you think that’s ridiculous it’s a good sign, you’re not too far gone yet.

    Maybe you could send this to a friend who’s drowning in the digital wash? Give them back weeks of their life.

    In summary:

    • Know it’s tricky to kick that dopamine.
    • Be vigilant. Consume information mindfully.
    • Specify what you want technology to do for you.
    • Most importantly, decide who and what you want in your life beyond bits and bytes.

    [Image credit: mjsonline . It has nothing to do with the web — brutalist architecture, actually.]

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