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Digital Overload: Too Much Technology Takes a Toll

Ned Smith


It’s the great irony of the digital age. It seems that the more we do, the less that we get done. Many experts believe it’s our own digital dust that’s dragging us down.

Our constant connectedness, the beeping and buzzing and bleeping digital devices we carry around, aren’t just causing us to become mega-multitaskers, they are also taking a social and financial toll.

Basex, a research firm that specializes in technical issues in the workplace, reckons that information overload is responsible for economic losses of $900 billion a year at work.

The real due bill, though, may be for the damage this busyness has inflicted on our productivity, creativity and the quality of our relationships.

“I think this 24/7 layer of connectedness we’ve added has really ramped up the feeling that life is going out of control,” said William Powers, author of “Hamlet’s Blackberry,” a cautionary tale about the digital din of our own making.

The first warning sign is usually a heightened sense of having too much going on that requires a constant toggling of our attention, he said.

“You don’t really know how addicted you are,” Powers told BusinessNewsDaily. “You’re skating on the surface of your day. We’re not built to handle that onslaught of information.”

As with most addictions, acknowledging that there’s a problem is the first step toward finding a cure.

“You have to recognize what’s going on,” he said.

Dr. Joanne Cantor, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has faced that issue firsthand. A self-described “recovering cyber addict, “she found herself tethered to e-mail and unable to rein in her online multitasking. She was getting less done, working more slowly and unable to concentrate.

After investigating research on how the brain works under information overload, she cut back on her media connectedness.

“Things turned around dramatically,” she said. “I became a zealot.”

Her book, “Conquer CyberOverload,” grew out of that research and the workshops she subsequently conducted to coach people on how regain control of their lives by scaling back their use of digital devices.

[How are kids affected by so much technology? You'd be surprised.]

Neither Cantor nor Powers are Luddites, advocating that we purge our lives of electronic devices. In the first place, it would be impossible — we can’t roll back time and the workplace to an earlier, less-connected era. It simply is no longer there.

Equally important, both say, these devices have greatly enhanced our capabilities and shrunk our world in a positive way. Our goal should be to regain control of our lives and how we use these devices. Are they controlling us or do they we control them?

One well-known figure from history who wrestled with the impact of technology, Powers said, was Henry David Thoreau. In Thoreau’s case, the encroaching technology was the telegraph, which made instantaneous communications possible.

“But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools,” Thoreau wrote in “Walden Pond.” “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

“You own your gadgets,” Cantor said. “They don’t own you. They’re like newborn babies always clamoring for your attention.”

You need to know when to say no, she said.

A good place to start, she said, is by learning to take a more sequential approach to life.

“Limit your multitasking,” she said. “Do one thing at a time. You’ll find you actually save time."

Cantor cited research conducted at Stanford University that showed that multitasking was highly over-rated and often counterproductive.

It’s not enough the control our devices, she added, we need to control our time as well.

“Be the master of your interruptions,” she said. “Don’t be on call for everyone 24/7. Don’t let yourself be an all-day receptionist. You can Twitter your life away if you respond every time a response comes in. You need to set boundaries. It’s very hard to do at first.”

It’s an incremental learning process. She said. You don’t need to do it all day. Try it for 15 minutes to begin with, she recommends, or wait until you’re ready before checking your email.

By adopting a more measured approach to your email, she said, you may also sidestep “sender’s regret” when you’re too quick to hit the reply button.

“The benefit of all this technology is a two-edged sword,” she said. “The ease of use comes back to bite you.”

“Be both the grasshopper and the ant,” Cantor suggested.

Being a doesn’t, in fact, pay off in terms of increased productivity, she said. Just like the battery in your laptop, you need to recharge. Play and leisure are as important in the creative process as hard work.

“Research shows that information overload interferes with your ability to think outside the box,” Cantor said.

For Powers, the solution that works for him and his family is an “Internet Sabbath.” They shut off their modem on Friday and restore the connection on Monday. This family ritual, he said, is now in its fourth year.

“When we return to our digital lives on Monday, we’re better at it,” he said. “That space helps me as a digital person. We have to calibrate our own connectedness, and that’s going to be different for every person.”

Ned Smith Member
<p>Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and held&nbsp;a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.</p>