It's a challenge of modern life: email, Twitter feeds, instant messaging, text messages, and other snippets of information are coming at us so fast that it's hard not to feel under digital attack. Sure, some of it's important — and that's precisely the problem. Turn it all off and you might as well quit the workforce. But read it all and your mind becomes so drained that it's a challenge to get anything else done.
In some ways, technology has evolved in a way that puts mere humans in a bind. Consider the email conundrum. From the moment you wake up, it seems the inbox is calling your name. And if you're like most of us, you answer its call pretty quickly.
"The brain hates uncertainty," says David Rock, the CEO of Results Coaching Systems and author of Your Brain at Work. "It's literally painful to not download your email the moment you arrive at your desk in the morning. But once you've processed 30 or 40 emails, you've ruined your brain chemistry for higher level tasks that are going to create value."
In fact, a University of London study done for Hewlett-Packard found that "infomania" - a term connected with addiction to email and texting - can lower your IQ by twice as much as smoking marijuana. Moreover, email can raise the levels of noradrenaline and dopamine in your brain by constantly introducing new stimuli into your day. When those levels get too high, complex thinking becomes more difficult, making it harder to make decisions and solve problems.
In short, the brain's capacity for decision-making evolved at a time when people had less to think about. Great, so now you have an excuse for not keeping up. But you still need a game plan.
Note: These tips are based on an entry in BNET's Life at Work blog.
1: Take control of email
Don't start your day with email. Set your email so it doesn't download new mail automatically or, at the very least, turn off any alert system. Instead, set a time to check for messages manually — preferably later in the day, after you've used your brainpower for more important things.
Equally important is that others at your business know how you want email used. "Emails should be short, concise, and used only when a conversation is not an option," says Adrian Moorhouse, managing director of executive coaching firm Lane4. "The easier communication is to digest, the more likely it is that the messages will be delivered effectively."
Some colleagues seem unable to help themselves. They send too many emails; they gossip or forward jokes. Get them to divert their personal chatter online by allowing them to use social media at work (even if it's just at set times of the day). Or talk to the worst offenders one-on-one. Peter Taylor, the director of the project management office for Siemens and author of "The Lazy Project Manager," says when he's cc'd on emails, he tells the senders to cut it out. "If people had to produce single sheets of paper and hand them out every time they wanted to communicate, they'd be a lot more conscientious. I educate everyone who I communicate with and as a result, the emails I do receive are pertinent to me. I restructure those emails, copy them into ongoing documents, and keep my inbox very small."
If you're reaching a breaking point, do the email equivalent of filing for bankruptcy. Simply wipe your inbox to start afresh. It seems drastic, but it can work. Send a message to all contacts letting them know what you're planning, select all emails, and delete or archive them. If you're planning a new regime of folders, rules, filters, and information-sharing disciplines, starting from scratch isn't so crazy.
2. Prioritize your prioritizingTo help you prioritize, start by setting clear goals. We all tend to do this subconsciously, but writing them down helps you actually achieve them. Here, too, time of day really matters. "Prioritizing is one of the brain's most energy-hungry processes," Rock says. That means it's best done when your mind is fresh and well rested. Allocate time to order your thoughts — dashing off a to-do list of tasks that are "front of mind" is easy, but it won't break the back of the work you need to cover.
Try organizing your thinking visually. One great way is with Mind Maps, diagrams of ideas linked together in a tree system that help you visualize all of them in context to each other. That way you won't forget any of your ideas when you have to decide which ones are the most important.
3. Blindside the data (approach it from an unexpected direction)
Break down complex information into sub-groups. Once you've determined a goal, you can "chunk" your work into groups to achieve it. You can also do this with your to-do lists.
According to an experiment at Wilfred Laurier University (It's About Time: Optimistic Predictions in Work and Love, European Review of Social Psychology), people are generally bad at estimating when they'll finish their own work, but good at guessing for others. So gauge your timing by using someone else's experience. You'll be less stressed if you're realistic about your workload.
4. Do less
To do less, you should delegate more. Too many managers can't resist the temptation to get personally involved in everything that's happening. But effective delegation means limiting the amount of information you have to process, as well as empowering those around you. Then, ask for regular briefings.
Many managers feel they can't shut off the fire hydrant of information. But they can take a break from it. "It's tempting to think that more information makes for better decisions," says Penny de Valk, CEO of the UK-based Institute of Leadership and Management. "But in most cases, it just erodes your focus. You need time to synthesize information and generate real intelligence."
That takes discipline, of course, but it's useful to stop thinking when you are stuck on a project so your brain can recover. "You do need to switch off and rebalance your brain chemistry if you're going to come up with new ideas," Rock says.
Check out Five Tips... the newsletter
Get a concise roundup of solutions and techniques that will make your IT job go more smoothly. TechRepublic's Five Tips newsletter, delivered every Tuesday, gives you instant access to the information you need. Automatically sign up today.