In our increasingly interconnected world, thanks to computers, the Internet, smartphones and all the other ways to access and process information, our brains are having to deal with the negative consequences of overload.
What can we do to reduce the stress?
You are probably reading this online. If you are on a desktop computer how many other windows do you have open at the same time - 2, 5, 10, more? Counting up I have open tabs on a dozen different websites, two of which include videos (currently paused), I'm working on three open word processor documents, two spreadsheets. I'm also listening to a podcast and I have my email open.
It is even worse if you program because you can add to this list all of the multiple views of the source code, running programs, debugger windows and documentation. The stop-start nature of building code also tends to make multitasking an attractive proposition.
But while I'm feeling almost overloaded I have a sneaking suspicion that other computer users would find this a relatively light loading. These days we appear to have taken multi-tasking to a new extreme and it is rare for anyone to be devoting their entire metal effort to a single task.
But is this habit of doing many different things at once bad for us?
This infographic argues that the human brain can only manage one or two tasks at a time:
(Click in infographic to enlarge; opens in a new window)
Source: OnlineUniversities.com via InfographicsArchive
The statistics presented above suggest that the average computer user changes tasks more than once every two minutes. You might have thought the more you multitask the better but the infographic lists the following problems among frequent multitaskers:
- Bad at filtering out irrelevant information
- Tended to choose extraneous information over task-related information
- Had a difficulty retrieving information from short- or long-term memory into working memory
- Had a tough time switching from task to task
What is more worrying is the suggestion that our brains might react by shutting down the higher brain regions that deal with empathy or even that excessive Internet use could impact concentration, ability to make decisions and set goals.
A study cited in the infographic suggests that blocking access to email can help reduce stress - even though you might panic at the very idea.
At the bottom of the infographic there are suggestions for ways to cut down on the amount of digital stress in your life:
- Limit the number of times you log into email
- Set aside specific times for checking social networking or news sites
- Send outgoing messages in batches
- Use RSS feeds to read updates at once
- Take a complete break from tech to be with family and freinds
- Set a time after which you are no longer reachable
All of these seem like good ideas - but simply recognizing that multitasking is a problem rather than a virtue is a good first step.