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Bombarded by Bytes? Give Your Exhausted Brain a Rest

Coping with mental fatigue in an overwired world.


Our society isn’t just wired. It’s overwired, according to psychologist and organizational expert Camille Preston, Ph.D., author of Rewired: How to Work Smarter, Live Better and Be Purposefully Productive in an Overwired World.

The amount of data bombarding us is almost beyond comprehension. Looking just at two-way communications technology, such as cell phones, Martin Hilbert of the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism recently calculated that humankind shares 65 exabytes of information per year. That’s equivalent to six newspapers’ worth of information being communicated daily by every man, woman, and child on the planet.

Preston notes that our brains aren’t equipped to process this vast amount of information, and that can lead to a long list of unwanted consequences. Recently, I had a chance to chat with her about the problem of data overload and the practical solutions that help ward off its harmful effects.

Why is “just sitting” in front of a computer for hours so tiring?

Dr. Preston: When you sit at your computer, you might have 10, 15, even 20 applications open at once: websites, IMs, email, Word. If you’re like many people, you’re constantly switching from one app to another. Mental energy is a finite resource, and switching back and forth this way drains it. So you feel exhausted, because you have too much information coming at you from too many data points.

What are the cognitive costs of this continual multitasking?

Dr. Preston: It takes 25% longer to complete a task when you’re multitasking, compared to when you’re focused on just one thing. Plus, while you’re multitasking, you aren’t activating the hippocampus—part of the brain involved in creating long-term memories—so you don’t retain what you learn. As you grow fatigued, your ability to make good decisions decreases, and the quality of your work declines.

What are the physical consequences of information overload?

Dr. Preston: Your body learns to respond to the stress of a full email inbox the same way it would respond to a charging tiger. In the short term, you may have an elevated heart rate, digestive difficulties, and sleep problems. Over time, you may also gain weight, especially around your abdomen. In the long term, chronic stress may contribute to a number of health problems, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression.

How can we give our exhausted brains a much-needed rest?

Dr. Preston: That’s really the crucial question. Too often, technology is ruling us rather than helping us have the lives we want. But there are simple strategies that can reverse this situation.

One is taking periodic breaks to shift gears. Research shows that 90 minutes is about the longest amount of time people can sustain mental focus with maximum intensity. After an hour and a half at your computer, you’ll actually increase your productivity if you step back and do something else for a few minutes. The more different the task, the better. Instead of writing a report or crunching numbers, for example, walk to the water cooler and refill your water bottle.

Practicing meditation is incredibly relaxing and restful for your brain. But when I mention meditation to my executive clients, many of them just roll their eyes. Napping offers many of the same benefits, and it’s more appealing to some people. I encourage my clients to get horizontal and take 10-minute naps at least once—but ideally twice—a day.

Spending time in nature is an excellent way to offset mental fatigue. If a walk in nature is practical, that’s great. If not, try listening to soothing instrumental music while looking at pictures of nature. Either way, give your brain a break from words. This isn’t the time to listen to an audiobook or music with lyrics.

The good news is that there are easy, practical ways to work smarter in an overwired world. You can start controlling technology instead of letting it control you.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a writer who specializes in health, psychology, and the intersection between the two. Follow her on Twitter. Like her on Facebook. Visit her online.

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