In Depth

Five ways to combat information overload

Here are The Week's top tips for coping with the stress and strain of the 21st century

Overflowing inboxes, frequent smartphone alerts and the constant distraction of social media: we are bombarded with more information in the digital age than we ever have been before. As the technology changes, so we need to change the way we use it – if we want to stay productive.

Here are The Week’s five tips for coping with information overload.

1. Do one thing at a time

Forget about multitasking and rediscover the benefits of deep concentration. The problem with multitasking is that it “costs” you, according to Forbes. The magazine says each time you switch to another task, there are small decisions to make – for instance, whether to communicate via text or email – and each of these insignificant queries uses up “oxygenated glucose, the very fuel you need to focus on a task”.

Switching between several tasks can make you “exhausted, disoriented and anxious”, says Forbes, quoting the work of psychology professor Daniel Levitin of McGill University, who says it is better to focus on one task for a longer period because that uses less energy and “reduces the brain’s need for glucose”.

2. Focus on quality

More of the wrong information won’t make you better informed; spending more time at work won’t make you more efficient; doing more won’t necessarily make you happier.

In his wellbeing column in The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman suggests using an email filter to sort messages into “important” and “everything else” - such as the integral version in Google’s Gmail. He says his friends use the feature to completely ignore the less important emails, focusing on high quality items that really matter. Burkeman also says he tries to reply to all personal emails – but does not worry about direct Twittter messages.

3. Turn off notifications.

You don’t need to know everything immediately. Writing on the Huffington Post, author Sarah Peterson argues that information is like spinach: yes, it’s good for you – but not if you eat too much. She advises: “”top taking in any piece of information and material you can get your hands on.”

A good first step is to turn off notifications on your phone – and, instead, check email or messages regularly during the day, putting yourself in control of the data. That doesn’t have to mean stopping every app from notifying of you new content: it could be a good idea to turn off email notifications but leave instant messaging, for instance.

4. Eat the frog

Get unpleasant tasks out of the way first, so you don’t spend all day worrying about the email that you don’t want to write. Writing on Australian news site News.co.au, entrepreneur Shivani Gopal advises small business owners to become more productive by doing exactly that. She says: “You’ve got to do the hardest things first and you’ve got to do it in the morning. I call it ‘eating the frog’.”

Levitin says: “Important decisions should be made at the beginning of the day, when gumption and glucose is highest. If you eat a frog first thing in the morning, the rest of the day goes better.”

5. Set aside time for the things you enjoy

Switch off your phone, let your mind run free and connect with your friends, your family or yourself. Levitin says stopping work to listen to music every couple of hours can improve efficiency – something which might surprise many managers.

In fact, argues Levitin, any sort of break – perhaps a nap or a walk around the block – can improve efficiency by allowing a part of the brain called the insula to reset. A 15-minute snooze could increase effective IQ by 10 points, he claims.

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