The Secret to Digital Sanity

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By Shelley Hayduk

Serenity.jpgToday we all deal with an unprecedented amount of information. We have websites, company intranets, e-mails and files. Even when we leave our computer we still have the ever-present stream of texts, alerts and updates. On a good day, this taps us into humanity's stream of consciousness, a testament to our ingenuity, connectedness and the power of many.

On a bad day, it can be nothing more than digital noise, overwhelming us with an onslaught of information. This dizzying array of stuff leads to a catch-22 recently explored in Newsweek's "I Can't Think." Sharon Begley notes that the more information we receive the poorer our choices -- a kind of "info paralysis" occurs, a deluge of information and possibilities that leads to brain freeze or, at the very least, lowered productivity.

It occurs to me that there is a simple premise we rarely follow, especially when we are, say, more technically inclined and wired. That is: "Some information needs to be discarded and some needs to be remembered. Keep and pay attention to only what is relevant." Or as Bruce Lee put it: "Absorb what is useful."

Throughout time humans have struggled with when to act and when not to act on knowledge. This is reflected in theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's well-known serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

It is not surprising that this very prayer has become the key therapeutic ingredient in many addiction treatments and thus can aptly be used for our own digital habits and addictions. Today, if this prayer were to be repurposed for the digital age, it might go something like:

God grant me the serenity to save the things I need, courage to ignore the things I do not, and the wisdom to know the difference.

If we were to practice this sentiment throughout our digital lives, what type of information management system and attitudes would we have? What tools should be used? When should we pay attention to information and when should we turn away?

In order to fully respect information in its raw form, it is useful to delineate key roles for some of the technologies we use daily. I have divided some common tools into two basic categories to provide some guidance:

Info-Sources.jpgFlow tools: Flow tools are inherently communicative and collaborative. For example: Twitter, e-mail, IM, phone calls, text messages, Facebook, etc.

Capture Tools: Capture tools enable you to store content for later reuse or retrieval and reflect on ideas. Capture tools include: mind maps, note-taking software, folder directories, task management, knowledge management software, and information portals.

Now here's where the key to maintaining sanity comes in. Just remember, information that flows needs to flow. You should be able to jump in and out of the flow as your time permits with full knowledge and comfort of the fact that the flow will always be there. It rarely goes away. There is no beginning and no end to people's Facebook status updates, tweets or Google news alerts. Sure, when you stop you might miss a few birthdays or Conan O'Brien's latest joke. Get comfortable with the fact that information is always out there and you can get to it when you need it.

Just like an ocean current, the digital flow demands respect. You can jump in and take advantage of it, but if you're not careful you could be swept away by it. Open Twitter to follow your peers, espouse the meaning of life in 140 characters or less, check your Google alerts, but reserve a significant amount of time during your day to be actively working on your projects rather than passively ingesting the flow.

Digital flow or noise, if not handled properly, will compromise and destroy focus. Our attention spans run only so wide. To cultivate depth and meaning we need clarity and focus on our priorities. Every tweet, news article or phone call is taking us away from our task at hand. Your mind only has so much space. Be judicious with your mental real estate. Schedule the flow to serve your schedule, not the reverse.

Getting Things Done and Information Overload

David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, from the book of the same name, centers on the idea of clearing your commitments and thus your mind so you can get to the important stuff in life. One of the key ideas that makes Allen's system so successful is that he treats our commitments and tasks like discrete information objects to be readily completed, categorized, discarded, or filed away.

A central premise of GTD is that you can experience a tremendous sense of relief and control by moving your tasks and ideas outside of your mind. You should capture them externally in a place you can trust and where you review them regularly. This frees your mind from remembering and allows you to focus on completing your tasks.

Allen also notes that "technology is a great servant but it is a terrible master" -- when you are "living in emergency scan mode," your inputs, AKA "the flow," controls your schedule. This is just like getting lost in the flow of information, spending your time serving it instead of the flow serving you.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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