Why digital overload might be a good thing

And the best things I’ve learned in 2013 about how to thrive in a hyper-connected world

“Distracted. Overwhelmed. Meaningless.”

Words like these echo across 2013's conversations. For all its benefits, the relentless march of connected technology — and with it, ego, information and commerce —into every crevice of our lives, comes with real costs that are increasingly:

  1. Shared by everyone (in the wealthy world). No longer is the question whether you get the device or connection. It’s how you tame it, harness it, or sedate the beast that often hatches out of the beautifully packaged, bluetooth-enabled, apparently benign egg.
  2. Compromising the quality of essential parts of our lives. A quick glance around restaurants suggests the “Tech at Table Index” has had a bull year. Perhaps, in 2013, edging up the mythical Silicon Valley “hockey stick” curve. (Unsurprising, when our phones are seething with apps, each chasing their own hockey stick growth.)

Make Love, Not More

While everyone’s experience is different, the digital deluge’s rainbow of psychological debris seem to settle in four primary areas:

  1. Lost time and focus: The two minutes on Twitter that turn into twenty, cyberspace inhaling another chunk of your life barely lived.
  2. Lost connection: The countless hours of your ego communing with your “friends’” egos on Facebook — and not one real conversation.
  3. Wasted stuff and money: The one click Amazon order which deposits new stuff on your doorstep, before you’re even sure you want it.
  4. Wasted work: It’s one thing seeing your job as means to an end when you keep it in a cage at the office. It’s another when it’s in your living room, and when your company is asking you to help them sell their products, with your social media profile, to your friends.

For many people it’s a cocktail of all four.

The I of the Storm

But given it sometimes takes a storm, sweeping across our houses, before we discuss the rising seas, perhaps the rapid rise of digital malaise should be welcomed.

It has accelerated a discussion about questions society is better off for asking.

Until last year, mindfulness and meaningful work were mostly things my California friends talked about. The solutions they shared were mostly three minute meditation apps, two hour email blocking tools, or one click donations to charities. (I’ve tried them all. While each helps — and while some of the operating systems that got us here might help get us out — they are like stacking sandbags on a shoreline. They keep the choppy waves at bay, but vanish beneath the storm.)

This year, by contrast, I’ve had conversations about mindfulness and meaning with my most cynical friends. With bankers and lawyers who saw meditation as something you did after a midlife crisis, and “meaningful work” as the wishful thinking of unshaven gap year students setting off to build schools in Africa.

The best things I’ve learned

And with these wider conversations, have come more interesting insights and more creative and dramatic solutions. These are my favourites:

  1. Your work is your life
    David Allen, the sage thinker behind Getting Things Done, points out that the separation of work and life is a relatively recent, post-industrial phenomenon. As work seeps back into most aspects of our lives, largely through technology, we’re simply reverting to what has been for centuries — like China’s dominance — normal. So instead of spending our energy on the losing battle of trying to separate life and work, we should be prioritising finding work that we’re happy to live with — and through. (And ideally for which there are jobs, or markets, in China.)
  2. Make generosity part of your work
    The good news is that work infiltrating life doesn’t mean you need to import your selfish “work self” into your home. Turns out, this probably isn’t helping you at work, anyway. Adam Grant’s superb book, Give and Take, shows that being generous at your work, and through your work, is one of the best long term strategies for professional success. Almost as surprising as the data, is the alacrity with which his ideas have been seized upon. He’s one of the world’s top-rated business school professors and the book has been embraced by the professional world, legitimising the discussion. He is to generosity at work in the cynical naughties what Alfred Kinsey was to sex in the repressed fifties.
  3. Hold a daily funeral for your emails
    Give and Take offers great tips on how to be giving with limited time. These include always saying yes to a five minute favour and spending more of your time on “givers”, who are likely to pay it forward. In many cases, such as a quick introduction, technology makes such giving much easier. It also brings more opportunities. And there are always favours, for lovely people, which you simply cannot do. My favourite coping strategy comes from an entrepreneur who told me at the end of each day he now deletes all low priority emails, saying a silent prayer: “May you all find what you were looking for.” I have tweaked this, adding a “resurrection list” — aka guilt list — of people I’ve let down. I’m planning a “resurrection day” day in 2014, when I will write to each and apologise.
  4. Be like Odysseus with your good friends
    Amidst the clamour of virtual friends and information, we neglect to spend time with the really important people, who enrich our lives. We have a great dinner together, resolve to meet up, and then life gets in the way. A friend, Jean Miller, has an elegant solution which she calls the “Scheduling Game”. The game has three rules. 1. Whenever you meet with a good friend, schedule the next meeting before you leave. 2. You can always reschedule, but you must reschedule. 3. Don’t feel bad about rescheduling, just get it done. I think of it as being like Odysseus. If you want to approach the social media sirens, first tether yourself in your calendar, to the life and connections you cannot afford to lose.
  5. Do fasts, not diets
    But precisely because they are sirens, don’t expect that (however tightly bound) you can nonchalantly sail by just a couple of times a day. You cannot pay quality attention other things — real friends, thoughtful work — with siren voices ringing in your ears. Resolving to gradually reduce Facebook time hasn’t worked for anyone I know. You reduce the level of distraction, but you’re still distracted. Effective solutions involve turning off, rather than dimming, the lights. No tech in the bedroom. No wifi at home. No internet one day of the week. No more Facebook. I would love to do the last, but I’d lose touch with too many wonderful people. Instead I’m trying out “Facebook Fridays”, only checking in once a week. To avoid missing messages, I’ve put text on my profile picture asking people to email me instead. It’s too early for results, but I’m so far feeling better for it.
  6. Start a snowball of less
    Where the incremental approach does work is in reducing clutter and saying no to stuff. Even if you start small, the more you do, the easier it gets. I love Leo Babauta’s suggestion of spending 10 minutes each day decluttering something. Interestingly the benefit of taking action in the physical world has a similar, and mutually reinforcing, effect to action in the digital world. Whether you spend 10 minutes deleting tasks you can’t do or apps you don’t use, or 10 minutes chucking out old memorabilia or sending ill-chosen clothes to charity, you feel better — and next time is easier. Either way you relieve the psychological burden of “stuff” without purpose. (On a distantly related note, one of my favourite books of the year, Scarcity, shows how the experience of scarcity — whether of time, money or friendship — has a similar and detrimental effect on our brains, knocking off double digit IQ points.)
  7. Dig deep
    Amidst the storm of information, one can experience a weird drought of knowledge. Simply reading more — more blogs, more news; however good—rather like drinking muddy or salty water, won’t necessarily quench the thirst. I’ve recently been trying an approach used by my brother, Damien, who, every few months, picks a subject to explore in depth. Occasionally pretty obscure ones, like the soundness of the science behind the health impact of vitamin D supplements. So far I’ve tried two areas: the effect of corruption on poverty, and climate change. The ‘return on investment’ is higher than for any time I’ve spent scanning Twitter, or reading The Economist and fine general publications. And the experience is a richer one. Largely because of all the best things about the connected world, where you never know in which direction a question will lead you, or from whom the best answers will come.

This post was also inspired by:

  • Dave Eggers’ gripping dystopian novel, The Circle.
  • Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter.
  • Brad Stone’s, The Everything Store.
  • As well as the many fascinating conversations I’ve had this year (with too many smart people to mention) around the challenge of how to build a digital product that helps rather than hinders the creation of meaningful relationships, and complements rather than compromises connections in the physical world.
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