How to manage chronic information overload in the modern workplace

System overload.
System overload.
Image: Flickr/Daniel Oines
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To understand how being constantly connected through computers and mobile devices has encroached on our working lives, consider the experiment about the frog in a pan of boiling water.

A frog in a pan of cold water that is gently heated will not realize it’s boiling to death if the change is sufficiently gradual. In the same way, the Web has affected our attention span, and so our productivity—slowly but surely the heat of distraction has increased as decades of internet evolution has added email, websites, instant messaging, forums, social media, and video.

Striving to manage technology better—or wean ourselves off from distractions such as social media updates or emails—can be very hard, if not virtually impossible for some. It requires serious willpower.


What’s the answer for today’s organizations—lock-down and block, and risk restricting access to genuinely useful content and services? Blocking and locking-off parts of the web can only hinder progress and innovation as reacting too slowly to change and innovation as seen in the NHS can have a negative impact on technology uptake, especially now that the internet is made up of things.

If we are to advance knowledge, it’s essential to have access to the full gamut of content online. There is some content on the web that will always be demanded. Efforts to censor online pornography, for example, have led to the overzealous use of internet filters—ones so inexact that they inevitably lead to legitimate sex education websites being blocked.

Procrastination is not new, and people will always find new and inventive ways of putting off work. But there are means to help tackle that distraction, even if only for some of the time.

Eat that frog

The problem with digital distraction is that it starts from the first moment we sit down at our desks—or even before we get there. Once we open our email, we are drawn into conversations, questions, and broadcasts. The more emails appear, the more we feel compelled to deal with them.

A useful solution involves that analogy of the frog again: We all have tasks we ignore and delay, nagging away at the back of our minds. We have to complete these tasks. Why not start your day by doing just that, and “eat that frog?” Instead of checking frivolous updates and emails, tackle an important task that’s hanging around first thing in the morning.

The Pomodoro Technique

The popular Pomodoro Technique, which suggests focusing for 30 minutes on a single task, followed by a break, can be helpful in dedicating time to specific projects. Another way to reign in distraction is to create lists or use time management apps like 30:30 or Wunderlist. These help set up a structured pattern to the working day, which is especially useful if you need to use social media professionally, but also need to carve out time to get other things done.


Meditation and mindfulness have gained attention in the last couple of years, with programs like Andy Puddicombe’s popular Headspace growing in popularity. In a busy office, these tools offer a sensible solution to the problem of losing focus. Just five minutes of meditation can help quiet the mind and return focus to completing the current task. Various studies have highlighted the benefits of meditation and mindfulness on a digital worker’s productivity, and general happiness too.

Create an alternative productivity calendar

Paper agenda-planners are still used, although their popularity has declined due to the proliferation of electronic alternatives. These alternatives don’t always work however, leading to a day overflowing with fractured and incomplete tasks. A better solution is to create a personal online calendar that overlays a work calendar. By scheduling everything from checking social media and emails to family time and free periods, it’s possible to make better use of the time you have.

Self-management starts with you

There comes a time to cut back on things that aren’t good for you—whether that’s food, drink, or social media. We must also realize that seeking distraction from our daily tasks is not healthy, especially since we can minimize this behavior.

Professor Steve Peters has helped many high-profile sports stars control this impulsive, emotional part of the brain—something he calls the “chimp brain.” The easiest way to gain control is to not feed those impulses—for example, by not opening email. But finding a happy medium between restriction and necessary use is not easy.

Some have tried to restrict email reliance and its effects on the workforce by turning it off for set periods. In Germany, there have been calls to prevent companies from contacting employees after hours. While this is fine for those working nine-to-five, this no longer applies to many, for a variety of reasons: some personal, some due to the nature of the work.

Self-management tools are a better option. For Google users there is an app called Inbox Pause that does just that—it prevents new email from appearing for a period of time. There are also restrictions for email on mobile devices so that they will only update when connected to known work or home networks—which means less chance of compulsively checking email while out and about, or while on holiday.

But all of these require commitment, and like any lifestyle modification there has to be a willingness to change. Technology will continue to insert itself into our lives at home and at work, especially with the use of smartphones. So to rein in distractions—whatever app or technique we choose to help us—we must rely on our own self-discipline.