Every day millions of us search for our car keys, our smartphones and our sunglasses. We can’t remember passwords for our online banking account and lose critical emails or other bits of data important for our work.
While dealing with such stress and frustration, we’re being constantly bombarded with information from thousands of different sources. For example, in 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986, or the equivalent of 175 newspapers. Is it any wonder that we become paralyzed by the sheer volume of incoming data, causing us to have more and more brain blips?
Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, psychologist and author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload,” says that while we’re all faced with “an unprecedented amount of information to remember,” most of us are still trying to “keep track of things using the systems that were put in place in a pre-computerized era.”
For example, one of the problems is that the computer has evolved into “that big disorganized drawer everyone has in their kitchen.”
“We have files we don’t know about, others that appeared mysteriously by accident when we read an email, and multiple versions of the same document,” making it difficult to determine what is the most recent, he explains.
But he says that he’s found examples of how high achievers manage to keep things running smoothly without getting bogged down by information overload. Their systems make a “profound difference” and enable them to have time for fun and relaxation, he says.
Here are some ways Levitin – using scientific research – says that we can become better at being more focused, productive and less stressed.
- Just say “no.” Become your own enforcer of no email or Internet for certain periods so you can sustain your concentration. Don’t check your email every time something arrives in your in-box, but instead check your email only during certain periods. Prioritize your critical tasks for the day and then stick to the plan, learning to ignore that nagging voice that’s trying to get you to do something else (like checking out funny goat videos on YouTube.)
- Reach for the reset. When the brain goes into “brain wandering mode,” it is serving as a neural reset button that gives you a refreshed perspective. A 15-minute nap can provide such a reset, as can reading, walking outside, looking at art or meditating.
- Do an information dump. If it’s supposed to snow tomorrow while you’re at work, forget reminding yourself to bring your snow boots. Just get the boots and set them by the door. That way, he explains, the environment is going to remind you about taking the boots instead of forcing your brain to keep track of it and clutter your thoughts. If you find ways to rid your brain of so much responsibility, you can better focus your attention on what is in front of you.
- Buy some index cards. Putting a to-do list on a computer or smartphone may not be the best method for focusing on priorities. The problem is that you have to scroll through the whole list every time you consult it. But with index cards, you prioritize your tasks with the most important on top. (It’s a technique used by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg).
- Control incoming messages. In a method used by executive assistants at the White House, correspondence is sometimes put into more than one category. Reports or letters might be filed by committees and by projects, and is marked as it comes in with appropriate tags. If you have a phone conversation that you need to remember, (read more here)
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