I grew up with a single mom who was half Wonder Woman, half Mary Tyler Moore: She managed to combine a significant career with raising a kid on her own.
You know what she didn’t have to deal with?
7 p.m. emails.
Digital communications tools like email, Google Docs, Slack and social media should make it easier to run our careers and our lives from our preferred location, on our preferred schedule. Instead, they’ve become major contributors to overwork, exhaustion and work/life tension—because there’s always another message to answer, and another social update to post.
Hybrid makes overload worse.
Hybrid work makes it crucial to have the strategy and tools to deal with digital overload, because we can no longer rely on the commute to define the end to the workday. And stop praying for your boss or CEO to declare an end to after-hours email, because that just limits the flexibility, effectiveness and wellbeing of people who want to tackle their work at 10 or 11 pm—so they can reclaim some midday hours for family, creativity or personal self-care.
As long as we keep talking about “digital overload” as one big undifferentiated glob of pain, we’ll have a hard time making headway on all the ways technology encroaches on our productivity and our peace of mind.
That’s why it’s more helpful to break it down to the dirty digital dozen: the twelve biggest contributors to online overwhelm. Use this list to identify the tech challenges that cause you the greatest distraction or discomfort, and experiment with new strategies for addressing these specific problems; I have some suggestions.
The time suckers.
Gadget glut. When you have a ton of devices, you’re creating a foundation for digital overload. Every gadget you own is just one more thing tethering you to the Internet, and one more device you need to keep charged, updated and secure: That’s why I announced my last job departure as an April Fool’s fantasy in which I dedicated myself fulltime to the task. But not everyone dreams about spending even more time managing their tech; for most people, it’s smarter to limit the number of devices you allow into your life, since each one has its own support footprint. Getting a PS5? Retire your Xbox. Got an iPad? Give up your Kindle. Bought a smart watch? Turn off your digital home assistant.
After-hours messaging. Without the commute to separate work and home, many people find it hard to switch off on evenings and weekends. But you don’t have to! Reserving short windows for late night, early morning or weekend check-ins can buy you the freedom to take big chunks of time away from the computer during your weekdays—which can be a lot more useful when it comes to running errands in near-empty stores, hanging out with your kids or just taking a long lunch with a pal. The key is to keep your after-hours email and messaging to consistent, time-limited windows…and to set your own outgoing messages to send the next day, so that you’re not contributing to a culture of 24/7 communications.
Vacation erasure. The same always-on culture that makes it hard to take a weekend can also make it hard to unplug for a vacation. I should know: I’m currently on our first family vacation in three years, and yet here I am, sending my biweekly newsletter! Except I’m not: As with just about everything else that needed to happen during my vacation, I took care of this in advance, queuing up my newsletter before getting on the plane. Since I know that I’ll be too anxious about what I’m missing if I disappear from email entirely, I set up a separate, vacation-only email address: A mail rule will forward any essential messages (like inquiries from my speakers’ bureau), and a detailed auto-responder will provide answers to the other kinds of email I typically receive. Most crucially, my auto-responder asks people to email me after I return, so that I don’t feel like I have to work my way through a 3-week backlog within 72 hours of my return.
The volume problems.
Inbox overload. If you feel like you have to read every single email, and reply to everything that’s potentially actionable, you’re letting other people control how you spend your time. That’s why I declared a vendetta against email over a decade ago, and advise people to make aggressive use of email rules and filters to thin the onslaught until your inbox takes only as much time as it really warrants. You can get all the details on my email filtering system in my Skillshare class.
Zoom fatigue. The shift to remote and hybrid work led to an explosion in the volume of online meetings. The solution? Learn to collaborate asynchronously (with tools like Coda and Google Docs), swap video meetings for phone calls, and just have fewer meetings.
Notification madness. Between Slack, Teams, email and texting—not to mention social media!—it’s easy to have a phone or computer that buzzes every minute, all day. Find the notification settings for each device you use and switch off all notifications; then turn only only those that are essential, and set them to be silent rather than a “ping”. Set do not disturb hours that prevent notifications arriving for at least an hour before you go to bed, and use your devices’ focus or do-not-disturb mode to silence notifications whenever you’re sitting down to a call or to do focused work.
Text excess. Slack, Teams and SMS have expanded to parallel email as a source of incoming messages—but with even more pressure to respond in real time. Try to limit yourself to just one or two platforms: I recommend using your employer’s group messaging system, and then using Signal (a secure texting platform) for absolutely everything else. Use your profile status line on every other platform to tell people which platform to find you on, and then use your status line on your preferred platform(s) to signal when you are in focus mode and unable to reply to messages in real time.
CCs. Lots of people complain about excessive CCs on emails, or the endless “reply all” threads full of thank-yous…but people rarely confess to abusing CCs and reply-all themselves. That’s because there’s a lot of pressure to show that you’re being responsive and inclusive, leading to the sense that you have to CC and reply all, just in case. The best solution is a team agreement on when you’ll CC one another and when you can drop people from a thread; failing that, consider adding a line to your email signature that lets people know you use CC and reply all very sparingly, and use that as your license to cut back.
The social sinkholes
Platform pressure. Just when I thought we had every kind of social media platform we might every need, along came Snapchat. And then TikTok. And then Clubhouse. The pressure to try out all these platforms is exhausting, and every single platform you join is another link in the chain that provides marketers and data brokers with a disturbingly comprehensive picture of your interests, locations and behavior. You can reduce your exposure—and your exhaustion— by choosing one network to focus on professionally, and one where you’ll be strictly personal. Unless you are managing social media for an employer (or building your own business), you really do not need to be part of any more networks than that—no matter how many people tell you that you’re missing out.
Obligatory posting. Between the professional pressure to be a “thought leader” or “influencer”, and the personal desire to keep up with friends and family, we’ve all found ourselves in the same position as beat journalists: It feels like we have to come up with fresh stories and content to post online, each and every day. If you really need to maintain a daily presence on one or more networks, consider organizing the process so that most of the work takes place in a single window each week: Write one thoughtful post, then break it into short daily updates you schedule with a tool like Buffer.
Keeping up. The flip side of obligatory posting is obligatory reading: There are so many news sources and social media sites to follow that no matter how much time you spend reading, watching and listening, there will always be something valuable or even essential that you’ve managed to miss. There are lots of strategies that can make you a more efficient media consumer, which we cover in the “Reading Online and Offline” chapter of Remote, Inc, but at the end of the day, you need to make peace with the fact that keeping up is a losing proposition that distracts you from your own priorities.
Social media envy. One reason social media is so exhausting is that it keeps us constantly immersed in the airbrushed version of everybody else’s life, bringing up complicated emotions: When I did a survey for Experience, two thirds of our respondents admitted to wrestling with social media envy. If you follow people on social media who inspire more than occasional pangs of jealousy, and in particular, if you follow people who only share their triumphs and never their vulnerabilities, get them out of your feed: Hide them from view, or simply unfollow/unfriend them.
Make a start
If you struggle with all or most of the items on this list, just pick two or three to tackle for now. Making a focused effort to address even one source of digital overload lets you figure out the kinds of tactics that work best for you: Do you want to solve your tech problems with tech tricks? Talk to your boss in order to clarify or reset expectations? Establish firmer boundaries, and learn to tolerate the anxiety that may arise when you draw new lines around your connectivity or availability?
Even more important, tackling a single form of digital overload is your chance to learn that overwhelm isn’t an inevitable part of our digital working lives. You can reclaim control over your time and your peace of mind. You just need to choose the place to start.
This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.