This week, Linda Ray, CEO of NeuroCapability, shares 7 easy to follow tips on how to manage information overload and as a result – reduce stress and overwhelm at work.
In my coaching work a common theme is evident. People are experiencing stress and overwhelm and this is contributing to a constant state of frazzle. In 1970 in his book Future Shock Alvin Toffler coined the term “information overload”. At this time, he predicted the rapidly increasing amounts of information being produced, and that we would be exposed to, would eventually cause people problems.
Edward Hollowell, a New York psychiatrist suggests that ‘never before in human history have our brains had to process as much information as they do today”. In the 2010 International Workplace Productivity Survey by LexisNexis more than two in five surveyed identified they are headed for an “information breaking point”. Just over 1 one in two (52%) of white collar professionals surveyed report feeling demoralized when they can’t manage the avalanche of information, a sign of the psychological toll information overwhelm is having on workers. One can only imagine that things have got worse in the five years since this survey. Clearly, businesses and companies that address this problem could gain a competitive advantage over companies that don’t.
Information overload is not the only problem. We are operating in a world where people are cognitively exhausted. Daniel Goleman in his recent book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence suggests “tightly focused attention gets fatigued – much like an overworked muscle-when we push to the point of cognitive exhaustion. The signs of mental fatigue, such as a drop in effectiveness and a rise in distractedness and irritability, signify that the mental effort needed to sustain focus has depleted the glucose that feeds neural energy.”
So how do we manage information overwhelm and cognitive exhaustion? Here are my tips.
#1 Be the boss of your attention rather than letting your attention boss you around. In earlier blogs I have shared the concept of attentional intelligence. Start noticing and tuning into where your attention is at any given moment.
#2 Stop multi-tasking – every time you switch attention from one task to another you use up vital energy, known as ‘task switching cost’. Instead try and get into the habit of ‘uni- tasking’. Keep your attention focused on one thing at a time.
#3 Conduct a distraction management audit – what are the things in your workplace that vie for your attention? Email pop-ups, phone alerts, instant messaging, and social media all act as constant invitations to be distracted and lose focus. Every time you are distracted when in the middle of doing some heavy thinking it can take 25 minutes to get back into the zone of where you were before you were distracted. If you want to guard against cognitive exhaustion and improve productivity claw back those lost productivity chunks by turning off distractions.
#4 Have a brain break. If you notice the signs of cognitive exhaustion have a break. Go for a walk, look out the window, grab a snack or a drink. Checking emails is not a brain break, make sure you stop even for a few moments and your brain will benefit. If the level of cognitive exhaustion is significant have a nap for 20 minutes. Research points to the benefits of napping at work.
#5 Be kind to your colleagues and encourage people in the workplace to summarize information before they send to you. A five dot point summary rather than a 15 page report will guard against spreading information overwhelm in your team.
# 6 Get smarter with your schedule. Chunk out your day and prioritize tasks that take lots of mental energy at the time you think best, then fit in the tasks that aren’t as important.
#7 Work in sprints – Work in blocks of 20-25 minutes before having a quick brain break. This might sound counter-intuitive to improving productivity, however, there is a solid body of evidence that sprinters get more done and feel less cognitively exhausted by the end of the day.