Written by Lena Durbec, Workplace Innovation and Wellbeing at Work consultant. A longer version of this article can be found on her website neuroptimist.eu
We are living in an age when there has never been as much information coming at us from all angles, day and night. Many people now can’t find a way to escape from this digital overload, and their inability to switch off is causing something experts have called informational anxiety. This leads to many of us suffering from light forms of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and lack of ability to concentrate.
The internet and the smartphone have become one of the most widespread addictions in the world. Studies show that many people check their phone every 15 minutes or even less, and become anxious if they’re unable to do so regularly. Digital technologies are using powerful mechanisms of neurobiological reinforcement, based on the effect of continuous novelty and unpredictability which our brain likes for evolutionary reasons. When we connect there is always new information associated with reward and release of small doses of the hormone dopamine. Since the reward is always variable and unpredictable, we always return for more of it. This is the vicious cycle which reinforces mindless and repetitive online behaviour, activating the compulsion and addiction circuits in the brain.
There are also psychological, cultural and social factors keeping us addicted to our smartphones. The outcomes are worrying: we isolate ourselves behind the screens, become intolerant to boredom, and struggle to stay in the present moment. With all the abundance of social networking and possibilities to communicate, people have never been as lonely as today. We become overstimulated and attention-deficient. Work-wise we lose our ability to concentrate and produce high-quality intellectual work.
Being constantly bombarded with excess information harms memory, concentration, and the ability to produce timely results and make good decisions. It also takes a toll on creativity and the ability to see the big picture.
All this paints a very gloomy picture of the modern knowledge worker, however, there is good news: there are multiple effective measures you can personally take to stop or at least reduce the plague of digital distractions and start working and living in a more productive, focused and fulfilling way.
FILL YOUR VOID
Business psychologist D. Mahaffey says that most of the solutions for managing the digital overload fail because they do not address the underlying issue – the one of inner void many people experience today in the industrialized hyper-connected world . Receiving constant messages, texts and emails may actually feel satisfying and feed such unconscious needs as feeling your own importance, a sense of being needed, the desire to prove one’s selfless dedication to work to supervisors, and others.
Approach your digital behaviour honestly – what is behind your urge to check work e-mails on Sunday evening? What would happen if you stopped receiving all those messages? Do you have enough social and emotional support in your surroundings? Do you have a purpose? Are you looking for external validation? How different you could be if you left your phone out of sight and went for a walk in the forest, or sat in silence for a while and then came up with a few decisions to improve your life?
INCREASE YOUR ENERGY
There are basic foundations to personal productivity which are impossible to bypass, for instance, sufficient and quality sleep. In the past Elon Musk was seen as a productivity hero, but now the true cost of his 120-hour work week to his personal relationships, emotional condition, physical health and productivity itself is clear, and it isn’t positive!
The next step is to quit or at least reduce coffee consumption. While it gives you an instant surge of energy, in the long run, it depletes your resources. The alertness you experience after drinking it is actually the fight-or-flight effect in your nervous system, the same as if you experienced a sudden life-threatening event, just on a smaller scale. Think of all the stresses we already have. Do we really need to create an extra stress effect artificially through coffee? Even little doses of caffeine may cause addiction. Common withdrawal symptoms are headache, drowsiness, anxiety, and irritability. After a few days of withdrawal however, your body will adapt and you will discover that it can perfectly function without this powerful and addictive stimulant.
MANAGE ATTENTION INSTEAD OF TIME
Managing personal energy is important; managing attention is even more important. Many productivity experts have come to the conclusion that time management doesn’t work. Because of the present volume of information coming into an office on a daily basis, it is not realistic to expect that an average employee can get on top of everything; responding to all the e-mails, reading all the newsletters, and posting on all the social media channels, on top of their many other daily duties. The digital onslaught over recent years has just added to the daily grind for many millions of people. The only effective strategy is to limit and filter the information and to act only upon what really matters (what brings value to you, your clients and colleagues). In order to do it we need to be a master our attention, not time.
People do need to become more aware of the issues and problems that can arise from digital technologies before the strain becomes too much.
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