Information age, Digital age, call it what you want – we have more information at our disposal than ever before. And it’s overwhelming.
We’re bombarded by 3,500 advertising messages a day and we barely notice any of them.
Just like ice cream and doughnuts are the perfect tempting combination of fat and sugar, an online interface and an algorithm can easily lead you to gorge on hours of prank videos, bands you loved in your childhood or swapping your face around with your dog’s. Naughty but nice.
We look a bit like battery hens unquestioningly tucking into the endless flow of technological corn feed that’s churned out in front of us when we should be a bit more free range and more discerning in our habits. The challenge isn’t the amount of information or distraction that’s available, it’s our ability to filter it meaningfully.
In the absence of our own checks and balances, we’re often swamped or left wondering where the time went. Information overload is winning and we’re only at the beginning of learning how to deal with it.
We used to obsess about time management, implying there were chunks of hours that we could simply divide up and prioritise in the right order. But now the more important question seems to be: what are we paying attention to, at any one time?
Here’s just five suggestions that could help you be aware of what you’re paying attention to and maybe claim back a sense of control as a result.
1. Get to grips with the idea of micro-decisions and micro-actions.
You make up to 200 micro-decisions a day at work alone and even more in your home life. Each is an opportunity to proactively change something for the better, think about it differently or change what you are paying attention to. From realising it’s the third time you’ve checked your phone in two minutes to taking the stairs instead of the escalator, your life is the sum of the small micro-actions you take every day, and every choice you make is significant. Becoming aware of micro-decisions or micro-actions can help to provide you with a sense of control and choice rather than passively “going with the flow” of the stuff that seems to come your way.
2. Introduce some everyday urban-life mindfulness into your daily routine.
No longer the preserve of hippies or Buddhist monks, short sharp bursts of meditation wherever you are can restore perspective and earn you breathing space (literally). Rohan Gunatillake’s “This is Happening” describes how we can carve out moments of micro-meditation in our real, technology-entangled lives even if we’re travelling on a crowded Underground train. Just a short break to reflect, stay calm and positive will reinforce a feeling of control.
3. Stop over-researching before making a decision.
Accessing an infinite amount of information means you might never arrive at a definitive “right” or “wrong” decision. Many of us are natural procrastinators and putting masses of information at our disposal can help to delay decisions almost indefinitely. Try putting a time limit on decision-making, naming the outcomes “Number 1” and “Number 2” instead of “right” and “wrong” and then….. jump. Often making the decision is more important than whether it’s right or wrong. And the sense of relief and momentum can move you on quicker than just looking through another ten pages of Google search results.
4. Learn to live with paradox and uncertainty.
Having an infinite amount of information means it’s easier to prove many things are true at the same time, even if they seem to conflict. We may all need to become more comfortable with this idea and the inherent lack of “definition” that comes with it. Sometimes accepting a paradox rather than trying to fix it moves you on quicker. Benjamin Franklin said: “but in the world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” Never more true than today. Being clear about the limited number of things you feel the need to be certain about can be a useful filter against information overload.
5. Lead change – don’t be changed.
As the saying goes, the only constant is change. If it’s you who is enjoying, looking for and leading it, you’ll feel more like an agent of change than a passive recipient of its results. You will also be riding the wave of information overload rather than drowning in it, because you have an agenda for change that you are controlling. Information only becomes relevant insomuch as it helps you to achieve the change you want to see. The rest you can ignore.
Every two days we create as much information as we did up until 2003. And that statistic itself is already five years’ old. How to filter information overload is one of our greatest challenges.
And the answer – for the moment at least – may be one small focussed piece at a time.