Ten ways to avoid future shock and stay afloat on the information ocean

ILLUSTRATION BY R. GARY RAHAM Learn to manage the cacophony of daily life.

By R. Gary Raham

Many people try desperately to keep their dinghy from shipping too much water in the daily effort to navigate the ocean of information on which we sail. McGill University psychology professor Daniel Levitin—author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload—estimates that humans currently generate about 300 exobytes of information annually. For the nerdy among you, that translates to 300 billion gigabytes of data—a number that has soared since Alvin Toffler wrote about “Future Shock” in 1970. One modest example: Shoppers must now choose from 40,000 products at their favorite grocery store, up from 9,000 products in 1976. The good news: We do manage to pick the 150 or so things we need from all those choices. We can keep our dinghy afloat—with a bit of planning, diligence—and luck.

  • 1. Make lists. Download some of that worrying cacophony in your mind. The act of writing things down removes some of the slurry from recent consciousness. Besides, one can derive great pleasure—not to mention a sense of accomplishment—by crossing items off a list.
  • 2. Sort and prioritize. Arrange to-do items into groups that reflect urgency. Does this item need immediate attention or can it be deferred a day, a week or even longer? Do it now. Defer it. Drop it. Delegate it. (More on the latter shortly.)
  • 3. Filter data ruthlessly, and skim. As animals, we can readily draw on the instinct that allows us to filter out beautiful natural vistas when a mountain lion is ready to pounce. Keep your daily survival goals in mind when contemplating whether to open the latest photo from Aunt Matilda. Don’t feel obligated to read every word of every message. Learn to process the main points of a message and move on.
  • 4. Focus, don’t multitask. According to Levitin, multitasking can cause as much distraction as smoking pot. This contention would seem to be supported by the accident statistics associated with trying to multitask while driving.
  • 5. Limit the distractions of “instant updates.” Set aside specific times each day to monitor e-mails, for example, rather than responding to each bing on your phone or message bar on your computer screen.
  • 6. Make important decisions early in the day—but do make decisions, even if you don’t know “everything.” Higher glucose levels in the morning benefit your brain processing centers. If tempted, as some of us are, to gather just one more bit of relevant information, weigh the value of the search against the probable outcome. Ultimately, we all must act before we have ALL the facts or nothing gets done.
  • 7. Make value judgments about what you do, then spend time on them accordingly. Designing a filing system for last year’s bills after you’ve filed that tax return might not be well-spent time. Prepping for tomorrow’s presentation makes more sense.
  • 8. Delegate stuff. Let others do what they do best so that you can do your best. Face the fact that you can’t (and really shouldn’t) control everything. Let Joe and Suzy shine doing what they excel at, and you don’t.
  • 9. Take regular breaks. They recharge your batteries. You are not wasting time. You are refreshing that 1.5 quart volume of neurological wetware within your skull.
  • 10. Give yourself time to daydream. It’s mental networking. Our brains do a fantastic job of integrating a variety of experiences if we give them the time to do it. Human beings imagineer futures with great success and make them come true.

The sense of drowning in a vast sea of information certainly qualifies as one kind of “future shock.” The actor Orson Welles, who narrated a 1972 documentary about future shock, defined the condition as “a sickness which comes from too much change in too short a time. It’s the feeling that nothing is permanent anymore.” The best defense against this feeling is to imagine the future ahead of time—in as many varieties as you can think of. That way the future is not as likely to take you by surprise.

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