How to avoid digital overload in an iEverything world

Digital overload

Living in the digital age is a double-edged sword: The tools available to us can be wonderful servants, but they can also be terrible masters.

An avalanche of emails, texts and social media alerts threaten productivity in ways unimaginable only a few years ago. The challenge for us, then, is to use this technology to boost our productivity while still fending off distractions.

Before we get to the tips and tricks, a little analysis is in order. Do any of these signs of digital overload apply to you?

Signs of digital overload

  • Finding it hard to complete a task such as writing a report without frequently breaking away to check email or visit unrelated websites.
  • Checking the same sites repeatedly within a short period of time.
  • Spending less and less time in face-to-face interactions.
  • Slipping away to check email or social networking sites while with others.
  • Going online or using your device when you feel stressed or want to avoid an unpleasant task.
  • Checking the computer first thing in the morning, or getting up during the night to use digital devices.
  • Spending long stretches of time surfing for content.
  • Spending most of your time with family in separate rooms interacting with screens.
  • Frequently using digital devices to entertain a child instead of talking, playing, or reading with them.

How did you do? If three or more of these apply to you, then you may suffer from digital overload.

Ways to regain and stay in control

  • Schedule ‘focus hours’. Each workday, I hold focus hours from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.; during this time I am unavailable for anything but true emergencies. My phones will in aeroplane mode and be unable to receive calls, texts or other inbound communication.
  • Reset your default screen. Changing from “inbox” to “calendar” view can help you be proactive rather than reactive. These tips can help you reset your default screen and optimise Microsoft Outlook to minimise distractions.
  • Turn it off. Switch off the email-notification feature, and check your email only twice a day.
  • When you are in, act as though you are out. Use the “Out of Office” feature during focus hours and when you’re away on holiday.
  • Treat email like a real letter, not a phone call. Email was not designed as an instant-messaging system. If you need an instant response, use the phone.
  • Use “auto select”. Junk mails or mails that are of no interest should go automatically into the “junk file.” This frees up space in your inbox and saves time.
  • Be courteous. Please don’t press “reply all”. Reply only to those who have to know.
  • Play the game. Have a “digital-free day” in which you “unplug” and connect with people − in person.

Managing your digital tools take a lifestyle solution. Staying organised is like maintaining a diet and exercise regime. Quick fixes won’t work in the long run; the goal is to come up with rules for living that you can reasonably stick to and that make your work or personal life easier, more productive and more satisfying.

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About the author

Jim Hetherton is a successful consultant, trainer and coach with a wealth of experience spanning over 25 years. Jim has held leadership & management positions in the prominent UK retailers Tesco and Co-Op and prior to his career change into learning and development, he helped establish Franklin Quest Europe which later became Franklin Covey Europe. Connect with Jim on Twitter and LinkedIn. More blog posts by Jim Hetherton ››
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