The overwhelm that so many people feel when working from home—or when returning to the office, conferences or other group settings after a few years of relative isolation—is intimately related to the cognitive, psychological and sensory challenges of living in a state of information abundance.
In my conversation with Ross Dawson on his Thriving on Overload podcast, we talked about how to deal with the burden of overwhelm—a problem Ross helps people tackle in his book Thriving on Overload: The 5 Powers for Success in a World of Exponential Information.
Overload and the hybrid worker
Overload is a crucial problem for hybrid workers because…
- Distributed work replaces conversation with text. Unless you want to spend your entire life in video calls, you need to learn how to assimilate and share information asynchronously, which usually means via text (in messages, emails or shared documents).
- Meetings push information intake outside of business hours. When you spend most of your day in back-to-back video calls, you have limited opportunities to catch up on internal reports, industry news and other key information. That work gets pushed into what is notionally personal time.
- Remote work mades digital overload worse. When you’re spending so much of your day at the computer, handling a greater volume of email and messages than ever, then catching up on your online reading and news becomes yet another task that’s keeping you locked to the screen.
- Information skills determine growth. The less time we spend together at the office, the less our career path is determined by our interpersonal skills and relationships—and the more it’s shaped by our capacity to assimilate and deploy information.
That’s why your strategies for managing information intake are more crucial than ever.
The power of information routines
One of the strategies Ross recommends in his book is the cultivation of effective “information routines”.
We all have information routines, but often these are habitual or compulsive, and quite possibly unhealthy: We pick up our phones while we’re barely awake, and start the day with alarming headlines from the front page of a news site. We scan our inbox and fret over tasks, criticism or collegial errors, long before we’re at our desks and ready to address what’s actually actionable. We stagger to the end of the day and fall asleep to the thrum of envy inspired by our friends’ airbrushed Instagram feeds.
Ross suggests a different model: building a schedule for how you consume information, tailored to the different kinds of attention required for particular sorts of information. Here are three suggestions he makes that I plan to implement myself:
- “Don’t necessarily start the day with information...consider letting your thoughts flow freely for a while, as many highly successful people choose to do.”
- “Concentrate scanning time. Do you really need to scan news headlines multiple times during the day?”
- “If your inclination when you are taking a brief break from highly focused work is to check social media feeds, instead try going on a little adventure to see what you can stumble upon that is both fascinating and different from your usual fare. It will be far more refreshing.”
The emotional footprint of overload
Thriving on Overload is full of these kinds of pragmatic strategies for managing information intake and processing so that you can work effectively, and when Ross and I spoke for his podcast, we got into the details of some of my own information management strategies.
We also dug into an aspect of overload that doesn’t get enough attention: how to build skills for handling the emotional and sensory impact of our current era of information abundance.
“Human cognition is not really geared for this particular environment,” Ross observed. “A big part of that is emotional in the sense that we feel that we’re missing out, we want to try to keep up, but it’s impossible to keep up, and this leads to not good emotions. How do we shift our responses?”
An overload toolkit
In the podcast, I answer this question by sharing some of the techniques I’ve learned over the past year—and for once, I’m not (just) talking about spreadsheet formulas.
As part of navigating an extended period of family crisis, I worked with a hypnotherapist and a somatic therapist who helped me learn some simple tools for staying calm during a moment of crisis, or getting out of fight-or-flight mode when the crisis de-escalated. These tools for personal resilience have proved surprisingly relevant in changing my emotional and physiological response to information overload.
They include techniques like…
- slowly rotating my head 180 degrees from left to right while tracing that arc with my gaze; since our necks freeze when we are panicked, deliberately unfreezing can cue our brains that we are out of threat
- picking an object in the room and describing the color, texture, shape etc.—i.e. bringing my rational brain back online
- tuning into the physiological response to a stressful moment and describing the physical sensations in my body
All of these tactics have reduced my reactivity in the face of information overload, so I am less frequently overwhelmed. That icky feeling of envy when scanning Instagram? The anxious tightening in my chest when I see someone else’s professional news on LinkedIn? The feeling of overwhelm when I open my inbox to forty unread messages?
Yes, I still find them stressful. But now I have tools for noticing and de-escalating my response.That means I’m less likely to avoid information intake tasks, and more likely to derive useful value from what I read or watch—because my cognitive brain stays online, instead of losing out to panic.
Professional tools from personal life
This kind of personal and professional evolution is an example of why I’ve long recommended therapy as the single best investment you can make in your professional growth. Challenges like information overload are professional obstacles or frustrations, but the way we navigate them is profoundly shaped by what’s in our personal toolkit.
And precisely because we live in an environment of information overload, therapy is often a more practical and sustainable option than adding yet another book or documentary to your self-improvement to-do list. Yes, therapy in the current moment may well mean adding yet another video call to your weekly calendar (just about all the mental health professionals our family has worked with in the past three years are working remotely themselves) but that real-time interaction and accountability means you’re more likely to do the work. And while it can be costly, and therefore inaccessible to many, if you are thinking of the cost relative to investments like coaching or conference fees, it starts to look a lot more affordable—and offers at least as much professional value per dollar.
We’ve spent the past three years eroding the barriers between personal and professional life that once kept the workday from eating up our personal space, and that erosion has in many cases hurt our wellbeing and contributed to burnout.
Now it’s time to make that erosion work in support of our wellbeing — by bringing our personal resources into the workday.
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.