It seems particularly relevant to talk about information overload in the run up to the UK referendum. Whilst I know which way I am voting, the debate has been intense. The campaigning has been relentless. The ‘facts’ and figures and emotional responses have been flying about much like muck hitting the fan – in all directions and everyone gets caught by something flying around. I don’t know about you but it’s left with a permanent nagging headache, much like a hectic day at work.
But this information overload happens to each of us on a daily basis. One study shows that Americans took in five times as much information every day in 2011 than they did in 1986 and one article I’ve read recently suggests that humans have created more information and content in the last 10 years than in all of human history before it.
We aren’t the only ones who feel some invisible force, turning up the dial on the treadmill and laughing manically as we try not to fall off the back.
I probably don’t even need to tell you the effects of information overload; you feel them every day. Exhaustion, a nagging headache, feeling pulled in a million direction, an inability to focus on tasks or finding yourself overwhelmed and short tempered. I don’t remember my parents ever coming in and staring blankly at a switched off television because they couldn’t handle a single bit more noise. Every so often you probably try to switch off and unplug, but end up checking your phone wondering what’s happening – so used to constant stimulation that the absence of it leaves you anxious.
Of course, our ability to take in, synthesize and use mass information is what makes us good at our jobs. It’s what helps the lawyer juggle 100 or more disparate files and still be able to ask the right client how their holiday was. It’s what allows the teacher to remember hundreds of new names each year and speak to all of their parents and parent’s evening without falling on their face.
But our brains can only take so much. There is only so much room and overload without rest can lead to exhaustion and overwhelm.
During my period of burnout and recovery I was exhausted and took a few days off sick. Throughout those days I kept standing up and walking into other rooms of my house, but by the time I’d gotten into the second room I couldn’t remember why I was there. Words would get confused in my head and I’d say table instead of chair or use the wrong name in conversation. With a family history of early-onset Alzheimer’s, this inability to utilize my vocabulary or maintain focus for more than a single minute was terrifying.
Of course, anxiety is a part of information overload and over stimulation of our brains and nervous systems. I was wired high on coffee, sugar, lack of sleep, anxiety and a chronic feeling of being beyond my limits
So how can we stem the tide of information overload in an increasingly connected world? My first three steps are the following.
- Disconnect from your technology for short periods. I wouldn’t suggest going on a complete ban straight off the bat - friends who have seen me go cold turkey on coffee can attest to the side effects! But start by putting barriers in place. Switch off your phone at 9pm each night (this will also help with your sleep hygiene, another huge step to beating overwhelm) and even go so far as to block sites that you know will suck you in (sidebar of shame, I’m talking to you).
- Compartmentalise your information. Switching areas of focus will allow your brain respite without constantly switching between tasks, which we all know is ineffective in the long run. Keep work at work, or keep a separate room or area if you have to bring work home. Once work is done, move on physically and mentally. Don’t discuss work all night with your partner and instead discuss something you both enjoy.
- Mindful moments. You will often hear me speak about the benefits of spending 5 minutes, once or twice a day to rest, relax and plan. It only takes 2 minutes of mindful breathing or five minutes to focus on making a cup of tea and drinking it without interruption to refresh your brain and relax your body. Check it out here or why not download a mindfulness app? I love the Mindfulness Daily app for their 30 second pause videos. I’ve even been known to play them at my desk, between stressful telephone calls.
As with anything that involves beating anxiety and overwhelm, there is little point throwing yourself into a big regime to completely change your life. Small and deliberate tweaks to the way your work, building up into habits over time are likely to have a far greater impact and stick with you over the long term. If you would like to talk in greater depth about how we can work together to return you to your best then I'd love to talk to you - book a time in my diary here.
I was a chronically exhausted, stressed and overwhelmed lawyer when burnout hit full force. Get the free guide to the first steps to take to deal with burnout and start a recovery - without throwing in the towel at work! http://tinyurl.com/burnoutfirstaid
Until next time, take care of yourself