How To Avoid Information Overload at Work
We continue to use the word ‘multitasking’ to describe how we work, and increasingly how we relax. But the evidence is clear: there is no such thing as multitasking, and what passes for multitasking is not good for you.
Research has repeatedly shown that people do not really ‘multitask’—when attempting to answer emails while on the phone, or text while watching video, the brain in fact switches very rapidly between tasks. The result is that people do all the tasks they attempt less well.
An early study by the University of London found that workers in distracting conditions faced increased stress and dropped an average of 10 points in IQ. That was based on a tiny sample, but a Stanford study in 2009 found self-identified regular media multitaskers performed worse on cognitive tests and had worse memories. “We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it," said lead author Dr. Eyal Ophir.
Still worse, late last year University of Sussex researchers released results of a study that found that those who multitask tend to have lower density of gray matter in the parts of their brains responsible for cognitive and emotional control. Scientists aren’t sure whether people with lower control are attracted to multitasking or whether—terrifyingly—multitasking too much changes the brain.
How can you shield yourself from distractions and become more efficient? Simple changes to your work habits will help.
Get some time alone
Schedule it in the calendar if necessary. Have your calls held. Consider whether you can respond to email at set times, rather than answering anything that pops up in your inbox immediately. If it helps, one Carnegie Mellon University study found that being on the alert for a possible distraction can actually increase performance by forcing you to concentrate now.
Manage concentration and energy as well as time
Even without distractions, people can only concentrate for so long. How long is open to debate, but the range seems to be between 10 and 45 minutes. Forcing concentration after that is possible, but gets increasingly difficult—making distractions more tempting.
Life coach Vanessa Poder recommends working in 20-minute bursts with two-minute breaks in between, followed by a longer break. Whether or not you follow or vary that formula, find ways to concentrate for fixed periods, before letting yourself relax.
Non-morning people may question this, but it’s commonly advised to do your top-priority or most complicated task in the morning.
If you have to multitask, learn to do it properly
While the evidence overwhelmingly suggests multitasking is a bad idea, the Harvard Business Review reported on an interesting study at Brown University, which taught people a specific task while multitasking. Later, those same people performed that task just as well when doing it in its own. In other words, multitasking may be easier if you build it into the way you learn a new skill.
Delegate and Outsource
It’s a paradox, but by making so many things easier to do, the internet has made our lives busier, because we do so many things ourselves. In his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload, Daniel J Levitan says:
Thirty years ago, travel agents made our airline and rail reservations, salespeople helped us find what we were looking for in shops, and professional typists or secretaries helped busy people with their correspondence. Now we do most of those things ourselves. We are doing the jobs of 10 different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favourite TV shows.
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