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How to cope with information overload in a high-tech world

Attention is one of our greatest resources. But it’s under attack. Read this value-packed blog post to discover the steps you can take to protect it.

Does this sound familiar? You’re at the supermarket, queueing at the checkout. Only a couple of people are in front of you and it’s not long before your turn.

You reach into your pocket/handbag and pull out your phone.

It hasn’t rung. Or vibrated. You haven’t heard the familiar ping of a new message.

Yet you feel drawn to unlock your phone. It demands your attention. Like a reflex.

We live in a world of hyperconnectivity. Where nearly all of us carry around a powerful computer with access to whatever information we want. Whenever and wherever we are.

But at what cost to our attention? Our productivity, relationships and mental health.

The battle for your attention

Attention is a complex topic.

But, as cognitive neuroscientist Dr Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Dr Larry Rosen explain in their book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, one way to think about attention is in two categories: bottom-up attention and top-down attention.

  • Bottom-up attention is when your limited mental resources are drawn by environmental stimuli. A loud noise or flash of light. Hearing your name. Your phone vibrating or a notification pinging. A bottom-up influence demands your attention and pulls you away from whatever you’re trying to do.
  • Top-down attention is our goal-directed attention. As humans, we possess the ability to set goals. To make a conscious decision about where to direct our attention, based on interpreting information from either the external world or what comes to us in our minds.

There’s a constant tug of war going on between these bottom-up forces and top-down goals.

This battle is nothing new. But with the rise of the internet, social media and smartphones, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in our ability to cope with interference – both from outside and within.

A losing battle?

Our hyperconnectivity means it can be very difficult to stay focused on a single task – no matter how important that task is.

In part, that’s because we’ve developed a bottom-up reflex to alerts. An irresistible urge to respond to a prompt. Enabling big corporations to compete for our attention with the promise of something more immediately interesting and rewarding.

But it isn’t just through external factors that technology interferes with our attention.

We seem to have lost the ability to concentrate on one activity at a time – be that a work project, a conversation with a loved one, or sitting down to read a book. Even without a notification, we self-interrupt and divert our attention away from our main focus.

And more and more we’re attempting to multitask.

When, for example, was the last time you watched television without using a second screen?

And how often do you find yourself checking your email while you’re talking on the phone?

The myth of multitasking

We’re deluged by information and one reason we attempt to multitask is because of the pressure we feel to be more productive.

But we’ve also grown increasingly intolerant of boredom and we’re anxious to avoid feelings of missing out. In our hyperconnected world, we’ve come to see access to information as the key to a fulfilling life.

The problem is, however, that when it comes to demanding tasks, our brains aren’t capable of multitasking. Neuroscientists have shown our brains switch between tasks. We afford each task only our divided attention and our performance diminishes as a result.

Training your attention

You go to the gym to train your physical muscles. But what can you do to train your cognitive ability to direct your attention?

It’s now fairly well understood that our brains are constantly changing in response to our interactions with the environment, through a process known as neuroplasticity – much in the same way that YouTube’s algorithms adapt to your internet use.

And many scientists believe you can harness this neuroplasticity to build a stronger brain.

There are a number of different activities that are being explored as potential ways to boost your cognitive strength. Among those discussed in The Distracted Mind are:

  • physical exercise
  • mindfulness/meditation
  • exposure to nature
  • traditional education
  • cognitive exercise

Another technique might be to take steps to address our fear of boredom and not being productive.

In her book, Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, Olga Mecking discusses what she sees as the lost power of boredom and why we should learn to view it in a positive way. How doing less can be a bridge to creativity and a way of desensitising ourselves to the pressure of productivity.

Just because we’re not actively focused on a task, it doesn’t mean our brains aren’t busy working away behind the scenes. Have you noticed this? Good ideas seem to miraculously pop into your head when you’re in the shower or walking the dog.

Becoming better information foragers

Whether or not our cognitive abilities can be enhanced by using one or more of these approaches, it’s important to find ways to modify our behaviour if we’re going to survive and thrive in the high-pressure environment of our modern, high-tech world.

Dr Gazzaley and Dr Rosen liken our approach to information gathering to that of foraging animals. We’re information foragers. But we need to learn how to develop optimal foraging techniques.

Here’s a four-step approach you can use.

  1. Practise the art of sustained attention and single-tasking. Challenge yourself by setting aside blocks of time in which you’ll only focus on one activity.
  2. Take practical steps to limit the accessibility of competing sources of information. For example, by shutting down all unnecessary programs; putting your phone out of sight; turning off notifications; and developing the habit of only checking emails at certain times of the day.
  3. Adopt strategies to increase your tolerance of feelings of boredom. Take breaks and allow yourself time to consciously do nothing. Spend a few minutes in the garden, savour a hot drink or just allow your mind to wander – free from the demands of screens.
  4. Take measures to reduce the anxiety that can prompt you to switch to another task. Potential strategies include setting expectations with your friends and colleagues by informing them you won’t be available during certain times. You could also do some exercise, have a chat, read something funny or engage in meditation/mindfulness practices.

A marathon, not a sprint

Modern technology has brought many benefits to our lives.

But the advances we’ve made over the last few decades have come at a pace of change never experienced before. And our brains haven’t had time to fully adapt.

The reality is we’re all still figuring out how best to live with our new levels of connectivity and access to information.

We need to find robust methods to cope with interference and information overload. Like a crash diet, you don’t want to find things become ten times worse if you can’t keep something going.

So imagine you’re learning to be a long-distance runner. Start small, with baby steps, and gradually increase the time you spend focusing on a single task.

And don’t be afraid to use technology to help you achieve your goals.

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