Thursday, September 23, 2010

Incoming! Surviving the information barrage

Time was, kids amused themselves with a fishing pole, or a softball, or a toboggan, or a bike, or a sandbox, or just watching the clouds go by.

Time was, their parents would sit on the porch, chat with neighbours, wander down to the park, or just watch the clouds go by.

No more. Watch people lined up at the bank or the supermarket checkout. Most are talking on their cellphones, staring at the tiny screens, or poking out text messages. This behaviour has become compulsive for many. They can't stop in meetings, at lunch, while walking down the street, even while driving, despite the knowledge that it can kill them, and others.

Electronic gadgets like videogames, iPads, laptops, and smartphones are seductive. The lure of social media is everpresent. I have experienced this myself, this compulsion to frequently check Twitter, check eMail, check Facebook, check LinkedIn.

We workaholics have always felt guilty when not working. We are conditioned to see not working as goofing off, slacking, not holding our end up, being irresponsible. We think vacations are for sissies, and meditation is a fancy word for daydreaming. We are sick, but society rewards us for it, so we keep doing it.

For us, the Blackberry and the iPhone are crack cocaine, and now social media are constantly beckoning.

Surely someone is looking for me, has posted something I need to know, has commented on my update, wants to tell me something, wants to hear from me, wants to do business with me, needs my help, needs an answer, needs a decision from me, right now.

I have become engrossed in online diversions while minutes, even hours, ticked by, and then felt guilty because I was NOT WORKING.

What is the effect of all this?

Our productivity is suffering (Of course, as a workaholic, I put this first). With a few exceptions, overuse of social media and gizmos of the information age that promised increased efficiency have had the opposite result. We spend countless hours on unproductive activity, and the constant interruptions destroy our ability to focus on the task at hand. We kid ourselves that we can multitask, but that has been shown to be a myth.

Our physical and mental health are suffering. In her article titled Repairing our culture of distraction, Emily Breder writes, "Unfortunately, constant activity is neither possible nor healthy. The toll this has taken on our health is obvious - rampant depression, obesity (self-medicating the depression with food), stress disorders, digestive and skin problems."

Our effectiveness is suffering. We have no time to think. Thinking is an important part of the management job, but we have little time for it in the wired world of 24/7 close-coupled connectedness. Too often, we allow incoming eMail messages and cellphone calls to direct our workday, diverting us from our intended agendas. We fail to distinguish between the important and the urgent, too often focusing on the latter at the expense of the former.

Our creativity is suffering. Creativity requires space and time, even isolation. Big ideas rarely emerge when we are under pressure. The creative parts of our brains seem to work best when we are not being overstimulated. Hiking, lawn mowing, gardening, cloud watching, fishing, canoeing, and similar pursuits that are not brain intensive seem to fertilize creativity.

Our relationships are suffering. Look around your home. Is each member of your family huddled away with their own screen, immersed in their own private world, unaware of and disinterested in what's going on around them? Same thing with your fellow carpoolers? How about the other folks in the lunchroom? What do workmates do while waiting for a meeting to start? 'Nuff said.

So what should we do? Some suggestions:
• Know when to unplug. All those gizmos have switches to turn them off, so go off the grid at drive time, lunch time, dinner time, recreation time, and family time.

• Schedule regular, cellphone-free, think-time meetings with yourself.

• Set explicit personal and business goals you want to achieve through social media, and cut out other online activity. Ask yourself, "Will this make me happier or wealthier?"

• Limit yourself to a couple of media, perhaps one for business and one for personal friends, rather than trying to keep up with the full gamut.

• Set aside a specific block(s) of time each day for social media. Otherwise, ignore it. If necessary, set your computer's alarm clock.

• Establish routines for business-related social media sessions (e.g. start or participate in 1 conversation every morning; reach out to one new person every day).
What techniques do you use to preserve sanity? Send them along.


  1. I often wonder what people a hundred years ago would have thought of us crowded around a flickering box at night, hardly speaking to one another and hunched over a tiny version of the same all day? We seem hypnotized!

    Maybe I'm just a throwback. My kids are only allowed to watch TV on Saturday morning, and computer time is severely limited during the week. My husband and I make time to UNPLUG and get to know the person behind the clicking smartphone.

    Thanks for linking my article in your blog. Great tips and advice. May I quote them in a future article?

  2. Thanks Emily. Sounds like you have media under control at your house. I think you are the exception. Quote any of my stuff anytime.