Digital overload may be the defining problem of today’s workplace. All day and night, on desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones, we’re bombarded with so many messages and alerts that even when we want to focus, it’s nearly impossible. And when we’re tempted to procrastinate, diversions are only a click away.
This culture of constant connection takes a toll both professionally and personally. We waste time, attention, and energy on relatively unimportant information and interactions, staying busy but producing little of value. As the late Clifford Nass and his colleagues at Stanford University have shown, people who regularly juggle several streams of content do not pay attention, memorize, or manage their tasks as well as those who focus on one thing at a time. The result is reduced productivity and engagement, both in the office and at home. The Information Overload Research Group, a nonprofit consortium of business professionals, researchers, and consultants, reports that knowledge workers in the United States waste 25% of their time dealing with their huge and growing data streams, costing the economy $997 billion annually.
Most people agree on the solution: Control the digital overload rather than letting it control you. But how, exactly, does one do that? We asked two experts: Larry Rosen, a psychologist, and Alexandra Samuel, a technologist. We suspected that their disparate backgrounds would lead them to offer dramatically different advice, and we were right. Rosen believes that we should systematically turn away from the information stream and focus on more energy-enhancing activities. Samuel argues that the best way to fight digital distraction is with the strategic use of digital tools. Taken together, their solutions offer a useful primer on how we can begin to tackle this huge and growing challenge.
Relationship to technology
Marco, a 38-year-old manager at an educational app company, used to start every day with his smartphone, checking it and replying to messages before getting out of bed. Over breakfast he read news on his CNN app, and even when driving to work, he couldn’t resist looking at his phone. At the office he was so distracted by incoming e-mails and texts that he had trouble completing important tasks, and colleagues grumbled about his failure to engage in meetings. Evenings at home were spent on his phone or laptop instead of interacting with his wife and kids.
Marco confessed all this to me after I spoke at his children’s school, and then he asked if I could help him change his habits. I assured him that I could, and that he wasn’t alone.
For the past few years, psychologists have been examining the recent dramatic changes in humans’ relationship to technology. Consider a study that colleagues and I conducted in 2008 and replicated last year. We gave people in three age groups—Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Net Generation (born in the 1980s)—a list of 66 pairs of activities to find out which ones they typically did in tandem.
Questions included, for example, “Do you go online and text simultaneously?” and “Do you e-mail and eat at the same time?” In 2008, Baby Boomers responded yes for 59% of the pairs, on average; the numbers were 67% for Gen Xers and 75% for the Net Gen. In 2014 the percentages were higher—67% for Baby Boomers, 70% for Gen X, and 81% for the Net Gen. Meanwhile, members of the iGeneration (born in the 1990s), whom we added to the second study, were engaging in an astonishing 87% of the paired activities, even when they found one in the pair difficult all by itself.
Unfortunately, the evidence shows that multitasking isn’t always successful: Doing two things well at the same time is possible only when at least one task is automatic. So, yes, you can walk and chew gum simultaneously. But check e-mail while participating in a conference call? Look at your Facebook feed and still do meaningful work? Researchers have demonstrated that the mere presence of a phone makes people less productive and less trusting, and that students who are interrupted while studying take longer to learn the material and feel more stressed. Gloria Mark, of the University of California, Irvine, has shown that workers typically attend to a task for about three minutes before switching to something else (usually an electronic communication) and that it takes about 20 minutes to return to the previous task.
Why are we allowing ourselves to be so debilitated by technological distractions? Some people refer to the overuse of digital devices as an addiction. But since most of us don’t appear to gain much pleasure from the behavior—a defining feature of addiction—I wouldn’t classify it as such. More accurate are terms such as FOMO (fear of missing out), FOBO (fear of being offline), and nomophobia (fear of being out of mobile phone contact)—all forms of anxiety that border on obsession or compulsion. People are constantly checking their laptops, tablets, and phones because they worry about receiving new information after everyone else, responding too slowly to a text or an e-mail, or being late to comment on or like a social media post.
Numerous studies support this diagnosis of the problem. In my lab we’ve found that many people, regardless of age, check their smartphones every 15 minutes or less and become anxious if they aren’t allowed to do so. My colleague Nancy Cheever brought 163 students into a lecture hall, asked them to sit without talking, doing work, or using their phones, and then assessed their anxiety over the next hour. Although light smartphone users showed no change, moderate users experienced initial alarm that leveled off, and those accustomed to checking their phones all day long felt their anxiety spike immediately and continue to increase.
How do we calm the anxiety and thereby avoid the distraction? When I speak to students, parents, teachers, and business leaders, I recommend three strategies—all of which involve turning away from technology at times to regain focus.
First, use behavioral principles to wean yourself from your digital devices. Allow yourself to check all modes of e-communication, but then shut everything down and silence your phone. Set an alarm for 15 minutes, and when it rings give yourself one minute for a tech check-in. Repeat this process until you are comfortable increasing your off-grid time to an hour or several hours.
A second strategy is inspired by the research of Nathaniel Kleitman, who established that our brains work in 90-minute rest-activity cycles not only when we sleep but also when we’re awake. So you should take a recharging break every hour and a half, especially if you’re multitasking with technology, which makes the brain overly active. Even a 10-minute walk in nature is enough to have a calming effect. You might also listen to music, look at art, exercise, or meditate.
(Harvard Business Review)