Digital overload may be the defining problem of today’s workplace. All day and night, on desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones, we’re bombarded with so many messages and alerts that even when we want to focus, it’s nearly impossible. And when we’re tempted to procrastinate, diversions are only a click away.
This culture of constant connection takes a toll both professionally and personally. We waste time, attention, and energy on relatively unimportant information and interactions, staying busy but producing little of value. As the late Clifford Nass and his colleagues at Stanford University have shown, people who regularly juggle several streams of content do not pay attention, memorize, or manage their tasks as well as those who focus on one thing at a time. The result is reduced productivity and engagement, both in the office and at home. The Information Overload Research Group, a nonprofit consortium of business professionals, researchers, and consultants, reports that knowledge workers in the United States waste 25% of their time dealing with their huge and growing data streams, costing the economy $997 billion annually.
Most people agree on the solution: Control the digital overload rather than letting it control you. But how, exactly, does one do that? We asked two experts: Larry Rosen, a psychologist, and Alexandra Samuel, a technologist. We suspected that their disparate backgrounds would lead them to offer dramatically different advice, and we were right. Rosen believes that we should systematically turn away from the information stream and focus on more energy-enhancing activities. Samuel argues that the best way to fight digital distraction is with the strategic use of digital tools. Taken together, their solutions offer a useful primer on how we can begin to tackle this huge and growing challenge.