Thursday, March 10, 2011

Do not disturb

Information overload and multitasking are fairly frequent subjects on this blog and it's time to revisit this theme. There has been a glut of articles on this theme recently, thus inducing stress at the overload of articles on information overload! Interestingly enough there is a summary of all these articles, for those who don't have time to read about information overload, 8 Must- Reads About Digital Distraction and Information Overload on Fast Company.

The gist of it all is that we are allowing ourselves to be interrupted at an ever-increasing frequency. We can multitask up to a point but then we become incapable of making decisions since we're taking in too much information. I'm guilty as charged I admit. It is increasingly hard to shut down the distractors and concentrate on one thing at a time. Even if most e-mails are relatively dull we can't help checking to see what's new - up to 40 times an hour according to a survey of office workers. The same goes for Facebook, Twitter and many other apps and it's easy for many to immediately jump to the conclusion that all this is a waste of company time.

An article in Newsweek, I can't think, describes recent research into our ability to make decisions when faced with too much information. A reasonable information flow can certainly stimulate our creativity and lead to good decisions but once you reach a certain level we face info-paralysis. If the volume of information is too great our brains just can't cope. According to psychologist Joanne Cantor:
“If you let things come at you all the time, you can’t use additional information to make a creative leap or a wise judgment. You need to pull back from the constant influx and take a break.”

So do we need to switch off and step back? Of course we do and we need to learn when to switch on and when to switch off. We need to relearn the art of attention. It's not just the teenagers who don't know when to switch off, we adults are equally guilty. Just look around at any conference or meeting at what people are really doing on their laptops and mobiles. Schools and universities must make more use of mobiles and laptops in the classroom but it is vital that some activities are tech-free. If the aim of a session is group reflection and discussion it is perfectly justifiable to ask for all devices to be switched off. It's a vital lesson for all to learn; we're here in this room and we're going to discuss but in one hour from now you can switch on again and search for further references. All age groups can benefit from structured non-tech time.

The art is to become multi-modal. Sometimes it's good to "go with the flow" and let all the social media stream in. I really enjoy seeing all the comments, tips, links and discussion and to be a part of it is stimulating. The tricky bit is to turn it off to focus on one important task and spend quality time with it. Sometimes we skim our way around various websites gathering notes and impressions for further use and sometimes we need to deep read an article or report. Some tasks go well with background music, chat sessions, Twitter feed and so on all at once and other tasks go best in silence.

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