'Information Overload' photo (c) 2007, David Joyce - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Of late, I’ve been thinking through ways to eliminate some of the many distractions in my life. As some of you may know, my right hand man, Isaiah, has just left for a bigger and better position at another church. For various reasons I won’t go into here (at least not now), I’m not able to replace him for the time being. That means I need to find ways to effectively do two jobs, which means my efficiency needs to go up. Way up.

Now, I could just knuckle down and work more hours, but we all know that’s not sustainable over the long term. While I could 60-80 hours a week for a month or two, after that time I’ll be ready to throw in the towel. 

Instead, I’m looking for ways to focus more energy on getting things done, and wasting less energy on distractions—those things that keep me from getting things done.

As I’ve been pondering this, I’ve been reading The Next Story: Live and Faith After the Digital Explosion by Tim Challies. In one chapter, he talks about research being done by Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and researcher at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Hallowell is a noted expert on ADHD, a syndrome you’re likely familiar with. He has also coined another three-letter-acronym; ADT, Attention Deficit Trait. ADT is a byproduct of the digital age. Basically, ADT is a manifestation of our desire to surround ourselves with more and more information.

Those suffering from ADT will find themselves to be distracted, irritable, impulsive, restless and underachieving. Their reservoir of new ideas runs dry. They are working longer, but getting less done. People with ADT no longer have time, or even the desire, to build relationships. 

As I read this description, I realized it describes a lot of people I know; and to some extent, me. I’ll go out to lunch with a friend, and spend part of that time checking my e-mail or twitter stream. I’ll impulsively check my mail client on my laptop while working on a proposal, just to see if any new information has come in. 

The other night, as I was getting ready to go bed, and saw a badge with a 3 on it hovering over the mail icon on my iPhone. I just had to check it, and found an e-mail that was mildly upsetting, upsetting enough that I lay awake for 3 hours thinking about it instead of going to sleep.

Reading further into the chapter, I learned that this constant state of information overload that we find ourselves in is quite harmful over the long term. We are actually training our brains to be incapable of thinking on any given subject for more than a few minutes at a time. We bounce from thought to thought long before we’ve actually figured something out. As a result we are working longer hours, becoming increasingly busy and decreasingly productive.

Undoing this is going to take some time, but I’ve decided to start taking some steps now to reverse the process, and hopefully make me more productive. And as a positive byproduct, I hope to be less irritable, distracted and frustrated.

The first step, which I actually did a long time ago, was to turn off all the incoming mail sounds on my phone and laptop. That constant string of “bings” kept calling me to leave whatever I was doing to see what just came in. The next step for me is to turn off push mail on my iPhone and iPad and turn off the unread mail count badge in Mail. The new mail badge is like a beacon, calling me away from whatever I’m doing to see who needs my attention NOW.

As an aside, I’ve come to realize that most e-mail is junk. Seriously. I was out of the office for a week , and I didn’t check my e-mail at all. When I got back, I had 147 unread e-mails. A grand total of 4 of them required action from me. The rest were quickly scanned and deleted. Not one of them was worth breaking my attention from any task at hand.

I’m also setting up as many filters as I can in Gmail and Mail to eliminate much of my incoming e-mail. Nearly every sales pitch and unnecessary e-mail gets sent to the trash before I ever see it. I’ve turned off notifications in Twitter (and even took the radical step of turning off all notifications on my iPhone). 

The final step, which I will probably implement this week is to not keep Mail running all day long. My hope is that by keeping the application closed, I will be far less tempted to just “pop over” to see what’s come in, which breaks my concentration and takes me out of what I’m doing. 

The bottom line, at least for me, is that I need to be able to dig into my task list, get stuff done and not be distracted by the constant stream of noise floating by. My hope is that over the long term, I will filter out that noise and get back to the point where I can concentrate on things for extended periods of time, get them solved or done and still have energy to spend quality time with the people I love. If all goes well, not only will I be able to survive this season, I’ll be more productive, and happier.

What’s your story? How do you deal with the constant bombardment of distractions in your life?

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