I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
– Bladerunner (1982)
It’s easy to be seduced into information overload. We all have a propensity for it, for the compulsion that there is one more nugget, one more piece of information — something unfound that if we just scan it … everything will fit into place, or something. Whether it’s emails, web sites (like this one), Twitter, Facebook, etc., the causes and symptoms are the same. We hunger for that extra information experience, our own c-beams glittering somewhere near Tannhauser Gate.
It can be a trap, of course. All that information, or, more appropriately put, all that undisciplined fracturing of our limited attention, makes us less creative, more anxious, and less able to get important things done. It’s not either/or, and it’s perfectly fine to float along for a while, sampling the many pleasures of our information-soaked environment, but it’s also a stopping problem. When do you stop, and how do you make yourself do it?
Here are a few things I do:
- I guard my calendar jealously. I refuse to lose my day to prescheduled meetings, phone calls, etc. Sometimes I block large chunks, but mostly I just avoid synchronous activities that require me to be in a particular place at a particular time for preset duration.
- I slot things. I used to dive into email all day long, but now I mostly do it in three burts: One is first thing in the morning, another is just before lunch, and another is at the end of the day. I also live by “inbox zero” every day, so everything is gone every day. I’m contemplating taking things down to two email slots a day. As related aside, Google’s Priority Inbox has helped me immensely, now that it’s tuned to me. It not only elevated things I should respond to, but it also downgrades things I don’t need to — most of which I now junk.
- My bigger attention fragmenter is twitter. I leave it on more than I should, mostly as a kind of information ambience about what is going on. I do, however, turn it off when I’m working on anything requiring sustained attention, like writing an article or paper, or doing some analysis. I throw things out on Twitter on a regular basis, even if some of it is automated, and I respond to many replies, but I’m trying to keep it from ruling me,
- I do most of the writing on this site, or over at Bloomberg, first thing in the morning, or late in the day. I leave the middle of the day for things requiring sustained attention, plus whatever calls and other things I agreed to do.
- I read more. I force myself to read long form, especially fiction, doubly so for more difficult fiction. Things that require sustained attention, a plot that must be followed, etc., are lovely for defragging my fragmented attention.
- I respond to zero calls that I wasn’t expecting. If my phone rings and it isn’t on my calendar, I don’t answer. It’s that simple.
- I use Google Voice, which turns my voicemails into emails. My voicemail message also warns people not to leave me voicemail messages, which helps keep down the din.
What do you do?
Dean D., & Webb C. “Recovering from information overload: Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.” McKinsey Quarterly, Jan. 2011.