“We are compelled to think of all things at the same time… preventing the appropriate amount of attention and priority to the most urgent of matters.”
— The London Spectator
This quotation could have easily been penned in 2019. However, it dates to the mid- 19th century in which information had suddenly become widely accessible. The telegraph democratized information and for the first time the speed of information outpaced the ability to make decisions. Initially, there was great cheer and excitement; however, over time, this always-on technology began to sow incredible stress. A never seen before condition, Neurasthenia, had emerged. Dr. George M. Beard described it as an “overloading of the individual nervous system circuits.” The rise of “instantaneous communication” had made the world suddenly too complex, too fast. And the one solution that the good doctor prescribed to restore personal and organizational order was to Simplify.
The rise of modern technology, much like the telegraph, has had a transformative effect on the way we work. Today, our ability to generate information is at a rate that was unthinkable during the Victorian era. According to one study, by 2020, the global sea of information will close in on 40 zettabytes or 40 Billion, Trillion bytes of information. Individually, we consume about 34 Gigabytes of information each day, which is roughly equivalent to ingesting over 100,000 words of information in a day. This glut of information is leading to cognitive overload and impairs our ability to focus on the work that matters and to think differently.
Here’s the good news: there are several practical things you can do right now to reduce your information overload and bring greater simplicity into your work day.
1. Ruthlessly prioritize
As mundane as this sounds, begin by taking inventory of all the things you do on any given day. Then underscore the most important and meaningful tasks. In the words of author and simplification expert, Lisa Bodell, “The lonely masses of uncircled tasks are where you can start reducing needless work.” Filter out the information that is of lesser relevance or interferes with your ability to address those immediate tasks. Be ruthless in how you prioritize what’s most important, so you don’t get swallowed up by a vortex of superfluous information.
2. Create personal choice architecture
Self-regulation can be a challenge. For example, resisting the urge to check that text message that just dinged while you’re writing that report is at odds with your biological programming. This is where choice architecture can play a pivotal role. One example that I use is imposing a restriction on my email access during the day. For hours at a time, I shut down email to prevent the temptation. When that 2-hour window closes, I review and respond to each email. This simplification not only saves time, but it greatly reduces stress. And when I really need to focus on a creative challenge, I will use my “In-Office, Out-of-Office”. On these occasions, I’ll intentionally set my out-of-office alert to inform my colleagues that “I am in the office, but not available. I am focusing on a problem that requires dedicated, innovative thinking time.”
3. Preserve moments of boredom
Perhaps the greatest expression of simplifying is intentionally allowing ourselves to be bored. When our minds are not preoccupied by our to-do lists, unceasing text chains and news alerts, we start to form fresh associations and patterns. If you haven’t had an ‘aha’ moment lately, perhaps it is because you haven’t sufficiently allowed your mind to wander. So, the next time you are at the DMV or at the airport gate, put away the iPhone and let yourself be bored. See what your mind comes up with and permit yourself to preserve moments of boredom. As the great 17th century philosopher, Pascal, once said, “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly alone.”