Do you remember reading about the Pavlovian response? It’s named after the scientist who essentially conditioned his dogs to salivate on demand.
Ivan Pavlov’s experiment went like this: He made a sound before mealtimes to signify that the food was coming, and when it did, his dogs salivated. When they became accustomed to the sound that signified the food was coming, he kept the experiment going with the sound, but not the actual meals, and his dogs continued with the learned response. Sound equals food, so they salivated.
From that kind of reward association, we can now get an idea of how we get trained to our own reward situations. From that, you can get a glimpse of how we can get conditioned to act in certain situations, even without a ‘reward’ at the end.
What we are exposed to, we can get used to. When we get ‘rewarded’ for doing things a certain way, we get habituated — again, conditioned — to responding that certain way. Expectations are set and we grow into responding quickly.
When you are use to the speed of response given by today’s technology, you can get habituated to responding immediately. Pings, pop-up messages, signals… when these register on your radar, you are alerted.
What happens when you are alerted continuously though, is that your brain can become overworked trying to sort out and prioritize all those incoming demands for your attention.
We can set certain rules and filters in email, of course. That’s what they’re there for. We can set up voice mail as well. But these strategies are external, and don’t really touch on the internal and mental toll it takes to recognize, prioritize and respond to all these demands on our time.
- Haven’t you ever felt a sinking feeling in your stomach when you see the total number of unread emails in your inbox and the priority folders in it? Or see the number of messages blinking for attention on your answering machine?
When you are habituated to compulsive update checking or responding, your brain’s internal alert systems are overworked. Focus is affected because the stimulus –pings, dings, pop-ups, rings— can keep coming and while you consciously try to keep you mind on the thing in front of you, your brain can’t help but keep registering the pings on your radar.
You pay for it: In split focus, or frayed concentration, in spilled energy mopping up after each ping, and a sinking feeling you’re not really attending to the important things in your days and in your life, since you’re basically on-call, all the time, for all the things coming in.
There are a couple of ways you can help yourself get out of this draining habit. Train yourself to stop responding immediately to the pings, and protect yourself by establishing quiet zones.
When you know that you will have a busy day, you can mentally prepare for pause-breaks for the influx of demands on your time. You consciously take steps to recognize transitions, and you give yourself real room to breathe. You don’t go through your day feeling as if you’re just gasping for air when you surface occasionally from all your tasks.
Think of what you experience when you’re bombarded with alert stimuli: Concentration and focus levels are affected. Interruptions make for stuttering action — think of your energy and focus as cans of water, and each alert is like a tug at your elbow, or a poke in your side. You can get pulled off-balance , or startled out of your train of thought, and the interruption can cause the contents of your precious cans to spill out needlessly.
What can you do?
Insert or make deliberate pause points so you can collect yourself on a regular interval.
- Maybe at the end of 90 minutes of work, a quick break to stretch your legs and get some water.
- Maybe you can set a gentle alarm or reminder at the end of each work-hour, not just for rest or bathroom breaks (or eye-strain breaks), but simply to shrug off the tension that you work yourself into and do simple breathing exercises to re-center yourself.
Attention can unravel under the pulling weight of too many demands. A pause, a break, a breathing exercise to call yourself back from being overstretched— can only do good. You know why?
- You get a chance to shake irritations off.
- You get a chance to clear your head of any negative feelings before going onto the next issue.
- You can recall yourself and be present to make a choice instead of going on automatic.
- You can reset the button – is this an inconvenience, ana irritation, an emergency? Is this MY issue to handle? Give it back to the proper owner.
- You can break free of the stress loop caused by the pressure for an immediate response.
- You can recognize and regulate at your own pace — your optimal levels, working from the inside out, not the outside in.
We have to face it: Technology today has created a special kind of techno-stress. We’ve become used to the idea of immediate responsiveness when it comes to phone calls, emails, IM’s, tweets, etc. For people with high energy, handling things like these might even pass unnoticed. The rest of us, however, can and do suffer from paying the toll of having our electronic tethers and 24/7 connectivity.
See, when we get an alert from our laptop, tablet, PC, or phone, our brains register that alert as a all for attention. Unless and until we respond, the registered alert keeps ‘poking’ for a response. Pushing back that instinctive response and acting to ignore the alert so we can go back to work takes energy. Now, try to count how many alerts you get in your average workday. That’s a lot, right?
Your phone chirps with a message? Your inbox makes a pop-up in the corner of your screen? You tense up, mind and body, no matter how small the twitch. That’s how we work with stimuli, our bodies react as well as our brains. The problem, and the source of stress, is that the stimuli don’t stop coming unless we somehow screen them out. And when we can’t help but respond, our attention is split, our focus is compromised, our energy squandered, and we get stressed.
When we feel “on-call” all day, every day, we can also ignore our own physical, emotional and mental requirements to disengage, rest, recharge, and even play –a situation which creates more stress.
Here are two habits you can incorporate:
Create a ‘moat’ and protect yourself.
Making a choice gives you power. Making a deliberate choice to limit your availability to alerts (instant message, texts, emails, etc.) gives you back your energy and enforces your protective boundaries.
The ‘moat’ here is not a body of water surrounding a castle but the idea of it — using a series of practices meant to help keep your focus, attention and energies flowing smoothly and according to your priorities and intentions, not scattered to the demands of others. The overall goal is a ring of quiet around your productive hours, with no alerts, pings, dings or calls.
Get work done first.
Wait to check your email after attending to the top priorities . This gets the momentum rolling, and the feeling of being able to accomplish the most important things can energize you to keep going.
- Try to schedule checking voice-mail and email at more specific times in your work day instead of checking compulsively.
- Repetitive checking-in destroys concentration and can create an artificial sense of urgency, which disrupts your workflow. As a courtesy, you can tell people when they can expect return calls or a definitive response.
- Turn off the email or phone features that make alert-sounds while you’re working. That way, you don’t get ‘poked’ by their alarms and lose your concentration.
If you have the option to work from home, set strong boundaries. Work with your boss on setting clear work-hours — and discourage yourself from working outside those hours. In that set-up, nobody will stop you from working non-stop except you. Your boss might not mind, but your family will.
There will definitely be days when you cannot enforce the ‘quiet moat’ practice. What you can do is establish coping strategies to screen out alerts and help funnel away demands. What the ‘quiet moat’ does is to establish delaying tactics so you can respond in your own time. If you can’t use the moat, you can lower the impact of demands.
For example, you can take mental mini-breaks every 90 minutes at work. Don’t skip out on breaks you need, because if you won’t take the steps take care of yourself, no one else will. Again, you can do stretching exercises at your desk, or rest your eyes a bit, or choose to take a bathroom or water break. You can also take a quick walk through the hallways to get oxygenated, to stretch your legs and get the blood pumping. And get way from work just to clear your head.
Again, undisturbed mental quiet time is still key. You can use earphones to block out sounds, especially if you’re in an open -area work environment. Breathing exercises to calm yourself when you’re feeling under pressure can help, especially the one called the 8-2-8. Eight seconds breathing in, hold for a two-count, then eight seconds again, breathing out. This breathing pattern has been known to calm the brain down from being overstimulated, and is also used in meditation techniques.
Organization also helps iron out possible stressful irritants. Ensure that you have the tools you need at hand so you won’t have to go hunt for something you need at a crucial time.
Buffers, boundaries and quiet zones are necessary protections for everyone now in this technologically interconnected, always-on world. They can create safe spaces for you to shake off what’s bothering you and help you recollect yourself so you can easily bear the stress of the workday. Make sure that whatever happens, you take the time to protect and enforce your safe zones so you can recharge, and take care of yourself.
The Purge : Dealing With Information Overload
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