In the beginning, there was the word. Now, there’s a deluge of language. On average, Americans consume 34 gigabytes of content and encounter 100,000 written words from various sources in a single day (pdf).
For context, Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace is 460,000 words, read entirely by only the most devoted Russian literature fans (and it’s a wordy genre generally). That means we’re encountering more than we can take in, according to literati and cognitive-load theory. We may need a language break.
Writers like Cormac McCarthy and William S. Burroughs have long claimed that language is a parasite or an infectious virus. Too much can leave you feeling feverish and tired, drained, and weak. Their view is supported by numerous studies on cognitive-load theory and information overload in various fields, including psychology, education, and business.
Cognitive-load theory posits that brains have only so much bandwidth, so to best take in information, you must also limit it. Choosiness improves information intake. Since most of the information we encounter is in the form of words, limiting language helps.
Limits decrease stress. Info overload makes us cranky, distracted, and ineffective, intellectually and emotionally bloated. Hence the coinage “infobesity.” Info-bingeing causes this information obesity and it’s much-discussed among entrepreneurial types obsessed with efficiency.
Infobesity, a widespread problem, can be managed by balancing your diet. Try just reading an article without checking text messages or listening to music. Don’t multitask and don’t play a podcast while working. Think of your focus as a precious resource; protect it like a national forest.
Need an extreme language detox? Go silent. Stop talking or take a break from technology, or both. Retreating from the word, even briefly, refreshes and provides perspective. It also improves communication, says Phil Sanderson, a partner at IDG Ventures in San Francisco who talks for a living.
He took a week off speaking in February, though his job is talking to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors. Chatting is his thing—the venture capitalist even ended his seven-day silence break with a talk.
Yet, Sanderson needed to reset and he didn’t want to retreat from the world, just the word. So he communicated in short notes on a whiteboard. ”Not talking was frustrating for me,” he told Quartz. “But communication became efficient and I listened.”
Despite the difficulties, not talking felt good and changed Sanderson’s relationship to language. He wasn’t stressed, His senses were heightened. Plus, he spoke, wrote, read, and listened mindfully once he was chatting again. That improved his business negotiations and relationships.
Some become so taken with the language break that they don’t speak for years. Environmental activist John Francis stopped speaking spontaneously one day in 1973, realizing debating didn’t advance his causes. He listened and learned instead, earning three degrees in environmental studies.
In 1990, Francis spoke again and started a global project, inspiring walks for the planet. He explained, “After 17 years of not speaking, I felt I had something to say.”