man in a sportcoat sitting on a wall outside
To maximize productivity, workers need to clear their minds, free up time and turn off digital distractions. PHOTO: William Stitt

The rate at which we consume data is having a profoundly negative impact on the way we think, work, and live.

Between the 1980s and the 2000s, the amount of information we consumed rocketed and, unsurprisingly, has continued to increase. Compared to the fifteenth century, we now consume as much data in a single day as an average person from the 1400s would have in an entire lifetime.

Defining Digital Dementia

This dramatic increase in information is leading to what leading German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer calls Digital Dementia — essentially, the overloading of our minds by a 24/7, 365 day a year internet connection.

All this digital information, coming from our computers, smartphones, tablets, and more, has been found to cause a breakdown in cognitive abilities in a way that is traditionally associated with people who have suffered a head injury or psychiatric illness.

It's making life harder than it should be.

Every day, the hundreds of emails, thousands of instant messages, social media notifications and open browser tabs, our lives are filled with contribute to the phenomenon of Digital Dementia.

The digital overload is having a drastically negative impact on our ability to perform creative tasks, which includes everything from writing personalized emails and reports, to building a business presentation.

Multi-Tasking = Stress and Inefficiency

According to Eric Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, human brains are “not wired to multitask well.” He explains that “when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so”.

Essentially this means that by "being productive" and doing multiple tasks at once, you are being ineffective.

Multitasking significantly reduces your brain’s capacity to process information. According to a study from University of London (UoL) multitasking actually reduces your IQ, with multitasking men dropping an average of 15 points — effectively giving them the same cognitive capabilities as an eight year old child.

Research from Stanford University even found frequent multitaskers were worse at multitasking than those who did it rarely, reporting that those who changed tasks too often had trouble organizing their thoughts, or filtering out other distractions. Essentially, this undermines the efficiency of habitual multitaskers.

How to Work Smarter and Better

To make sure we are working at our optimal best — especially when it comes to performing activities that require blocks of focused time and creativity — it is important to keep in mind these hints and tips that can free up time and prevent distraction while we work.

To revisit, and paraphrase, Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, we need to turn off and tune out before dropping in — in order to work smarter and better. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Start by batching all email activities into set times throughout the day. Outside of those times, don’t check your email inbox. Segregate action items and to do items, so that you can crush each group separately. Multitasking is, as discussed, inefficient, so segregating items is the better path to follow.
  2. For tasks that take intense focus, you need to "turn off" and remove yourself from digital distractions. Activities such as writing personalized emails, writing reports, creating marketing copy and conducting research all require freedom to think. This also goes for more routine activities, such as organizing files, preparing presentations and other administrative tasks.
  3. Start by planning your time accordingly. If you need an hour to do a task, block out the time  in advance so you’re both prepared and free from distractions. Before settling down to do this task, make sure you have all of the materials — research, contacts and so on — ready for when you want to start so that you don’t have to search through programs and files during your work block.
  4. When you’re ready to start work, tune out and turn off the multitude of digital distractions that might plague you. This includes platforms such as Facebook, Slack or Twitter, as well as your email inbox. Then, without notifications constantly pinging on your screen, you can actually get some meaningful work done.
  5. Using one browser window, instead of alternating between Chrome, Firefox and others, and filtering out white noise can also make it easier to focus. Remember to take a five minute break as necessary; go for a walk, or listen to some music — whatever it takes to come back to your desk with a clear head.

Efficient Working Is Happy Working

We are now living in an age of information overload and, unfortunately, Digital Dementia is just one side effect of this.

The increasing number of bleeps, notifications and distractions leads to stress, burnout and ineffective working. Of course, there is no desire to go back to living in isolation, cut off from the rest of the world.

For that reason, we need to more carefully consider how we manage our digital lives.

Essentially, this means learning how — and when — to turn off, and turn on, all of our digital distractions. There is, after all, a time and a place for everything.

When we properly manage all of these interactions, we can work more efficiently and, crucially, more happily. We will be less stressed and more productive, which, at the end of the day, can only be a good thing.