Have you ever experienced looping thoughts and random questions that are annoyingly important in the middle of the night? Are you a naturally curious, investigative type with a need to learn, even if the matter is trivial or pedantic?
Years ago, you might have had to wait days, or even weeks to answer these burning questions. It likely would have involved a trip to the library, some time spent on microfiche, or dusting off those encyclopedias your grandfather gave you for your birthday.
Fast-forward to 2020, and with one swipe on your smartphone, you can find all the information you were looking for — and more. Much, much more. We are living in an era where information is literally at our fingertips. This is great, right? It’s what we’ve always wanted, right?
Not necessarily. There is something to be said for the old adage “less is more.”
American economist Herbert Simon wrote: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” We become less attentive the more we have to process, and can wind up feeling lost in a sea of information. Our brains are coping with data flowing into them from devices which constantly beep, flash and bombard us with information. And if we believe we are multitasking, we aren’t; rather, we are switching rapidly between different activities.
PLC’s Nicole Salmon recently had the opportunity to review the book “Noise: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus” by author Joseph McCormack. McCormack is the Managing Director and Founder of The BRIEF lab, an agency dedicated to the teaching of art of communicating clearly and concisely. McCormack suggests that ever-present “noise” is the new normal, something which can negatively impact our productivity, decision-making and cognitive control. Our days are spent consuming endless amounts of information, and ever-distracting social media, diminishing our ability to focus.
Consider some staggering facts that McCormack has put forth:
- 10.3 is the average age for a childhood to get his/her first smartphone.
- Most homes have more televisions than residents
- Adults spend 11.5+ hours a day watching, reading, listening or interacting with media.
For some fascinating social media statistics, see here.
Why Too Much “Noise” Can Be a Problem
Today, each of us individually generates more information than ever before in human history. Our world is now awash in an unprecedented volume of data. The trouble is, our brains haven’t evolved to be able to process it all. Every Facebook post you send and every blog you read is competing for your limited attention with important things like how to advance in your job, or bettering your relationship with a dear friend or family member.
All this extra information processing is making us very tired and causing us to lose focus. Distraction is addictive. As our own Nicole Salmon points out in her review “We increasingly crave it, oblivious of the damage it wreaks.”
Why Might We Seek Out Noise to Begin With?
Are we actually aware of just how much information we are consuming in a given day? For some of us, no. You might be shocked to learn, for example, that you spend six hours a day watching television, on top of the three hours you spend on Instagram nightly. For others, the information overload is intentional.
Staying busy and distracted can be a coping mechanism. The busier you are kept, the easier it is to avoid facing painful emotions. Some people have to be “on” all the time. They purposely seek out multiple ways to distract, whether it be through work, an abundance of social commitments, or excessive use of media simply because the fear of being alone in their own heads is just too frightening to contemplate.
According to therapist Claudio Zanet, as quoted in a recent article, “…many clients talk about the fear akin to falling into the abyss: a giant black hole that they won’t be able to escape from,” he said. They believe that if they try to process the emotion—whether it’s anger or sadness—they won’t be able to stop.
As an Executive Director, does this sound familiar? We have touched on how stressful the job of an ED is in previous blogs. Distraction may be something a burnt out ED turns to as an escape from the stressful reality of daily life on the job.
What We Can Do to Block Out Some ‘Noise’
There are ways we can reclaim our time and manage distraction so we can focus on what’s essential.
- Unsubscribe to non-essential newsletters and put up email filters.
- Set up a website-blocking app to help you resist online temptations.
- Consume less news and be selective about what you are reading.
- Spend less time on smartphones. It’s easy to get sucked into the void of nothingness that can exist on your apps like Instagram and Facebook.
- Make a conscious effort to make your online connections meaningful. For example, spending quality time with long-distance family or friends through online applications can be a wonderful use of your time, rather than surfing the internet aimlessly.
- Try to unplug at some point during the day/evening— even if it’s only for an hour. It doesn’t have to be all at once, either. Unplug from everything— phones, email requests, music devices, computers, televisions, video games, etc. As an ED, this may be really difficult, but it’s worth it to set aside some time with no stimuli to distract you.
- Escape to soundproof areas when you can or put on noise-cancelling headphones.
- Practise mindfulness. According to one Harvard study, we spend nearly 50% of our waking time thinking about something other than what we are supposed to be doing. The goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment.
What are some strategies you use to limit distractions? We’d love to hear them!
By the PLC Team