Cognitive overload is a term psychologists use when referring to dealing with too much information or too many tasks. Such overload can impair our memory and decision making, and can make us more prone to errors we don’t notice—such as stereotyping other people as our brains take shortcuts through the clutter. In other words, the more overwhelmed we are by information, the less responsive we become to actual people—and the overload problem is getting worse. A 2008 study by Roger Bohn of the University of California–San Diego showed that the average American consumed 34 GB and 100,000 words of information every day—enough to crash a new laptop in one week. And that was in 2008, when the iPhone had barely made it to market!
More fatiguing yet is the emotional load of digital contact. Almost every message we receive has an emotional component, and emotional overload has also been shown to impair our thinking. For example, checking 10 emails in your inbox can trigger 10 different emotions—such as anxiety about the big project that’s due; excitement about last night’s date; sadness from the latest headlines; worry about your sick aunt; anger from your belligerent neighbor; and fear about impending job cuts at work. Scanning Facebook may have the same effect at an even faster pace. Just remember how you felt scanning your friends’ posts right after the election or the inauguration or the great march. The virtual anger, despair, confusion, or jubilation affected you through a process psychologists call “emotional contagion.” It’s no wonder we often feel wiped and unable to focus. Ironically, one result of emotional overload is a feeling of personal isolation.
Yet, overloaded as we may feel, our brains are titillated by novelty—and the technology is designed to take advantage of that. We feel a little burst of joy when we get pinged, and it makes us forget our priorities in an instant. These technologies never stop competing for our attention, nudging us to read, like, comment, respond, and share. And in that whirlwind of infatuation—as stressful as it is—we get lost and forget what it is that we actually want. As bad as we feel, we still think there might be something better on the next screen.
So I recently took a 10-day media fast. I needed some time to reflect and come back to a state of calmness. Not just for myself, but for my family and my work. I noticed more than ever how the emotions that were emanating from my screens were affecting my ability to be a supportive friend and family member—not to mention a clear thinker. After 10 days of no email or media of any kind (barring a few text messages), I feel much calmer. I am a lot less stressed and a lot more focused. I have space to think and I am able to listen more attentively. I can enjoy my family more and—let us hope—be more enjoyable myself.
I’ve also realized this: as a professional, a mother, wife, friend, and involved citizen, the best way to be effective is to have a clearer and calmer mindset. Emotions certainly have their place and so does information, but one’s own inner state is most powerful when it is neither drained nor overly emotional. I do my best when I’m calm and energized. So I plan to remember that a healthy fast is in order every now and then to reboot my system. That said, I’m not planning to move to a desert island. As a writer and a research psychologist, I have to stay abreast of current events and engage online. So I have to manage the state of my own mind.
I know from research and my own practice that activities like yoga, exercise, prayer, community service, and silent or nature retreats can all help to boost mental and emotional resilience in the face of the technological storm we engage with every day. But I think the real key may be mindfulness, especially a specific type of meditation born of Buddhism that involves “nonjudgmental awareness”—that is, observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without getting too involved. I’m working with this kind of mindfulness as an inbox meditation that raises awareness of how I consume information.
Most of us try to eat somewhat healthy, and not too much. We probably try not to snack incessantly all day long. I think it is time to do the same thing with information: to be more selective about what we choose to take in, the doses in which we take it, how often we choose to do so—and how much we let it affect us. I’m also taking my weekends and holidays offline. Because it’s better for my health.