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Staying afloat amid information overload

Is it possible to serve the church’s mission and still give your mind, body and soul a much-needed break in a world saturated with emails, texts and tweets?

Watercolor by Jessamyn Rubio

June 7, 2011

The flow of information never stops for the Rev. Dr. Todd Adams, the associate general minister and vice president in the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

He fields up to 150 emails a day. He spends afternoons trading text messages about the church’s strategic plans. And he once tuned in to a conference call via cellphone while cutting the grass.

On a recent night, he and his wife had climbed into bed to watch TV when he heard the telltale ping of his cellphone from across the room.

He hopped out of bed, retrieved an email, fired up his laptop, and went to work responding.

It was past 9:30 p.m.

“It’s like an addiction,” Adams said. “I’m so driven by the customer service component of what our office is supposed to provide that I want them to have an immediate response.

“I am a digital media boundary failure,” he added, with a laugh.

His experience isn’t unique, and it raises questions for leaders of Christian institutions: Is it possible to serve the church’s mission and still give your mind, body and soul a much-needed break from the seemingly unending flow of information?

Can you be an effective, responsive leader without being plugged in all the time?

And when you are plugged in, are there strategies for managing the wave of information coming at you so you can avoid drowning in it?

The answer is “yes” to all three, say those who study the impact of information overload and the practice of managing it all.

“You can either do what you’re educated and trained to do, or you can be a universal receptionist, but you can’t do both,” said Joanne Cantor, the outreach director at the Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “Conquer CyberOverload.”

“The idea is you should be available to those who absolutely need to reach you without being available to everyone in the world who may want to reach you,” she said.

Working harder, accomplishing less?

Technology gets a lot of the blame for information overload -- the state in which a person is juggling more material than the brain can reasonably absorb. But the problem predates electronics.

Long before the first email, text or tweet, Ecclesiastes 12:12 warned, “Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (NRSV).

 

Questions to consider:

  • What do your technology habits say about your priorities, your health and your ability to effectively manage information?
  • Have you mastered the art of managing information? If not, how does your behavior compel others to copy your habits? If so, in what ways have you given others permission to do the same?
  • Have you ever taken a “technology sabbath”? If so, how did you spend your time? How did you feel about the experience? If not, can you imagine how would you spend your time?
  • The Rev. Kevin A. Miller said he trains his staff to avoid adding to information overload. How might your own habits add to information overload? What changes can you make to prevent from doing so, and how can you empower those you lead to do the same?

Virtually every age has struggled with its own complaints about information overload, said Ann Blair, a history professor at Harvard University and the author of “Too Much to Know.”

Roman philosophers and medieval scholars argued that wading through more books only made it harder to become truly knowledgeable, and critics in the 15th century cautioned that the wave of publications following the invention of the printing press could distract scholars with drivel.

What technology has done is multiply the amount of information available, the speed at which it arrives, and the size of the population digesting it.

“Ecclesiastes, Seneca or the medievals who talked about the problem worked in a very small circle in their time. With printing, a larger circle became aware of the problem. Still, only 10 or 20 percent of the population was literate,” Blair said. “Now we have universal literacy and nearly universal access to the Internet in this country.”

The ready access to information isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Case in point: when the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denominational headquarters in Indianapolis was damaged by a fire April 5, its nearly 200 employees continued to work from remote sites using laptops and smartphones for about two weeks.

“That was technology being the enabler,” Adams said.

But harnessing technology to get things done is a lot more effective than being harnessed to it, said Cantor, who calls herself a “recovering cyber-addict.”

For years, she studied the impact of media on children. She started tracking its effects on adults after realizing how much time she was spending looking at email, multitasking and surfing the Internet. It seemed, she said, the harder she worked, the less she accomplished.

“Many people are actually getting less done even though we have better technology, because they have access to too much information and they can’t handle it, and they’re often being interrupted by irrelevant things,” Cantor said. “And even when it’s relevant, there’s too much of it.”

The body’s reaction to information overload is both physical and emotional, according to researchers from Temple University’s Center for Neural Decision Making, who used specialized MRIs to monitor the brain’s response to it. According to a Feb. 27 Newsweek article, as the amount of information given to the study participants increased, so did the activity detected in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex -- the brain area linked to cognitive thinking, working memory and emotion.

But when the participants were given more information than they could process, activity in that part of the brain suddenly fizzled, as if the mind had simply thrown up its hands. The participants got frustrated and started making poor choices, researcher Angelika Dimoka told Newsweek. “With too much information, people’s decisions make less and less sense.”

The real-world implications can be staggering. According to a study by research firm Basex, workers spend up to 50 percent of their day trying to manage information flow, costing companies $900 billion a year in lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation.

For leaders of Christian institutions, the impact may be harder to quantify but just as serious.

“The greatest casualty is the loss of a still and quiet center so essential for leading a healthy life and being a pastoral presence to another human being,” said the Rev. Kevin A. Miller, the associate rector at the Church of the Resurrection west of Chicago and author of “Surviving Information Overload.”

“What we have is people with up-to-the-millisecond Twitter feeds but not really thinking deeply and reflectively very often, and that’s critical to leadership,” he said. “They’re not really sitting there thinking meditatively, reflectively about the human being in front of them or this seminal work written 200 or 2,000 years ago.”

Give your brain a break

So what can Christian institution leaders do about information overload?

Establish boundaries, Miller said. It’s not only good for your emotional well-being; it sets a positive example for those you work with and serve.

“With emails, people expect a quick reply, but I’ve found you can educate them. You can educate people that ‘I have a life too, a rhythm, a family, commitments, in addition to what I do here. Love you, but you’re not going to hear from me for a while,’” Miller said.

“They may not love it, but they come to respect it,” he said. “What it does is model a more balanced life for them.”

To avoid feeling overwhelmed, Miller takes a “technology sabbath,” usually on Fridays, when he’s reachable by phone but not by email. He also carves out at least half a day each week when he can work without any interruptions, and he reduces the flow of news coming his way to a trickle. He reads The Week magazine and gets a weekly news summary on his smartphone, but he avoids TV talk shows and the nightly news.

“It’s actually a real discipline” to do this, Miller said. “You’ve got to work on yourself and develop the grace to say to another person, ‘I had no idea Osama bin Laden was shot three days ago. Tell me about it.’ There is a humility you have to cultivate and a willingness to be out of the loop.”

Giving the brain a break is crucial to avoiding information overload, Cantor, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said.

The Internet makes collecting information relatively easy, but if you want your brain to process it all, take a walk, take a shower, or even take a nap.

“The research shows that ‘sleep on it’ really works,” she said. “When you come back to what you’re doing, you’ll see connections you didn’t see before.”

She also cautions against multitasking. Research indicates that the brain can’t effectively do two things at once.

Instead, it switches back and forth between tasks, taxing the brain’s ability to focus, reducing the amount of new information it can absorb, and delaying the length of time it takes to complete those tasks -- sometimes up to twice as long.

“Basically, you’re dumbing down your brain when you multitask,” Cantor said. “It’s like using your left hand when you’re right-handed.”

The Rev. Dr. C. Jeff Woods, the associate general secretary for regional ministries of American Baptist Churches USA, said he tries to avoid multitasking altogether.

He also resists the temptation to surf the Internet aimlessly by going online only if he needs specific information. And as information comes his way, he filters it based on a simple principle: Does it fit within the church’s mission?

The measuring stick of productivity

When Woods facilitates discussions about leadership and organizational development, he uses a jigsaw puzzle analogy to explain how to manage information.

“The edges frame your priorities. The corners are the core values that permeate everything. As information comes, ask, ‘Does it fit inside the puzzle or not?’” he said. “As new things come along, ask, ‘Does this fit with the priorities we’ve made?’”

Church leaders face considerable pressure to be informed about a host of issues, ranging from political movements to how to run a capital campaign. Rather than trying to develop expertise in everything, C. Michael Patton, the president of Oklahoma-based Credo House Ministries, said he practices “referred conviction,” relying on trusted sources to guide him.

“If you try to put your feet in too many rivers, you’re going to end up in overload big-time,” said Patton, whose organization focuses on theological development for laypeople. “As a Christian leader, I try to think, ‘What is it that I myself have been called to do? What is it I have been gifted to do? And what is it that I can refer to others to do?’”

Delegating responsibility is an important part of managing information overload, said Miller, the associate rector and author of “Surviving Information Overload.”

Online research is helpful, but when it makes sense, he consults church members and colleagues who have specific expertise rather than browsing the Internet.

He also trains his staff to avoid adding to information overload. For example, he instructs, don’t hit “reply all” on emails if the original sender is the only one who benefits from the message. And if you forward a link, specify exactly why you’re sending it.

Email is for affirmation, Miller said. If an exchange requires confrontation or emotion, do it in person.

And the best way to measure productivity, he said, is to remember that the church’s greatest strength is its people and the face-to-face relationships they build with each other -- not the number of emails, tweets, links and documents they exchange via technology.

“Ultimately, Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with everything you’ve got and to love your neighbor as yourself,” he said. “So we have a measuring stick: Are you being a more loving human being, or are you not?”

The new normal

Adams, of the Disciples of Christ, will begin a three-month sabbatical next June. During this time designed for rebalancing, Adams said, he will spend time with his two children, play golf, learn Spanish, and return to Honolulu to check on the progress of several churches he helped a year ago.

His office will also take away his work phone and disable his office email account.

Though he’s a bit apprehensive about unplugging for so long, the “new normal” -- the one where he’s not checking email around the clock -- may suit him, he said.

“In August 2012, I’ll either be in a rehab program for the technologically addicted,” he joked, “or I’ll be really refreshed and back to work.”