Watercolor by Jessamyn Rubio
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?
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.”