The Secret to Digital Sanity

By James Fallows

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.

So when you factor in Allen's logic, you come to understand it's not only your information that overwhelms and has potential to consume but also your tasks and commitments. These too are a sort of flow that needs to be managed lest it sweep you away.

And, of course, every new article or tweet you think about is a new task or commitment you are making.

Capture Tools Provide Digital Reflection and Relief

Identity.jpg Having a system to deal with all your information is a must, whether it's your old filing cabinet or an advanced information-management tool. Information that moves beyond the update of the day that has meaning to us needs to be captured. Sometimes people get caught up in the information flow because they don't have good capture tools or knowledge management systems. They feel compelled to read everything when they see it because they know they may not be able to find it later. This is when the information flow starts to control you, modifying your schedule and interrupting your day.

Or even worse: companies often use a flow tool, such as email, by default to attempt to capture and retain key company knowledge. As a result, documents are misplaced and the search box becomes your only way of retrieving knowledge. This wastes enormous amounts of time. Users go from having too much information coming at them to not being able to find the one relevant piece they need.

Digital capture or knowledge management preserves our ideas and enables you to move above the fray of information. If done correctly, your capture tool can become a part of your digital identity, personally or as an organization collectively.  It's your digital memory or the place to store stuff when you want to remember it.  Jerry Michalski, founder of the Relationship Economy eXpedition and general tech guru, has created a 148,600 thought digital Brain of all his ideas with PersonalBrain (my company's technology). His Brain is not only a great resource for him and his followers, it has become a testament to his own perspective and thinking. 

Jerry's-Brain.jpg

Bear in mind, the more stuff you can get out of your head and into your digital capture system, the easier it is to organize tasks and act on them by becoming explicitly conscious of your information and tasks. This is true for the same reason a simple to-do list, while not actually completing your tasks for you, can provide extreme psychological relief. Information capture tools free your mind from the mental clutter and stress of having to constantly remember all your commitments. Getting a broader view of your knowledge assets can also help you prioritize.

During our day, the flow often pleasantly surprises but nonetheless interrupts us with new articles, new purchase ideas, and other happenings. Your capture tool should give you focus by providing that place where you can put things away with the confidence of being able to get to them at a moment's notice when the time is right. This helps you control your time and priorities.

The stress of information overload comes from the anxiety of thinking there's all this stuff you need to remember. By putting things from the flow into your capture tool you can ensure that you return to this piece information when the time is right. This relieves all that stress, allowing your mind to focus on what is truly important.

Info-Into-Brain.jpgSpend a little time on what to keep and what to ignore in the stream of information. This might mean setting up scheduled flow time in your day to engage with the noise, before unplugging after a specific period of time.

For some of us it might mean downgrading and shutting off noisy alerts, even losing a gadget or two. Using David Allen's GTD methodology for your information and commitments can help you operate on new horizons and gain greater focus. As an adjunct to this methodology, I also encourage everyone to invest and explore information management technologies so you can "put stuff away" for later to minimize your interruptions. You don't necessarily have to create a Brain the size of Jerry's, but having a conceptual space where you can organize information based on your perspective will open up a new level of insight. You're basically gaining a foundation for storing and managing all the good stuff that comes through the digital flow.

I hope this post plants the seed for you to formulate a plan for each of the technologies and information sources in your life. Just remember: achieving serenity is about taking control and leveraging all the information that surrounds you, rather than it controlling you.

Shelley Hayduk is a cofounder of The Brain Technologies, makers of visual information management and dynamic mind mapping software.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/03/the-secret-to-digital-sanity/72550/