Too much information?

How many emails were waiting in your inbox this morning? How many of them were important? As we struggle to stay afloat in a torrent of information, the key to a happier, more productive life might be to learn how to switch off.

The M25, London’s orbital ring road, was a long time in the making. They say that it took 70 years to plan it, 12 to build it and just one to find it was inadequate. Originally planned for 88,000 vehicles a day, within six years of its opening it was carrying 200,000 or more. It opened in 1986 as a three-lane motorway. Today it has up to six lanes in places – and it’s still gridlocked on Monday mornings.

The lesson? Capacity increases traffic. The same law applies to everything from smartphone memory to your working day. The evolution from letters to faxes to email to text didn’t magically give us extra hours of leisure every day. It just gave us colleagues who expect a reply to a work-based enquiry at 10pm.

We’re bombarded with communication, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, email, texts or Instagram. Next time you’re in a café, look around at your fellow customers. You’ll see that 90% have their attention fixed on their smartphones, texting away. About what?

According to Cal Newton, author of ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’, we need to learn how to achieve long stretches of focused thought. Because those are the jobs that will still require human beings when AI has taken over the humdrum stuff.

Creative types, like artists and writers, can lock themselves away from distraction. Both Mark Twain and Roald Dahl used to write in sheds away from their houses. The Greek statesman Demosthenes went to greater extremes. He built an underground study to practice his oratory and, so that he’d be too embarrassed to socialise, shaved off half his hair.

But most of us operate in the world of open plan offices, meetings and email. Newton suggests instead that we create fixed portions of time for ‘deep work’, whether it’s a set day a week out of the office or deciding that you’re not going to answer emails or check your phone until lunchtime.

His point is that you need to treat the deep work – the stuff that needs focus and creativity – as your top priority. Instead of just ‘finding time’ for calm, focused thought in a day full of email ping-pong and meetings, turn that mindset around. Deep work is what you must do; after that, find time for emails if you can.

The information age is amazing. It has changed the way we work, behave and communicate. We carry around in our pockets a device that has more computing power than the Apollo moon shot. But more isn’t always better. If we don’t learn to switch off and focus, then, like commuters on the M25, we’ll spend more and more of our time on the information superhighway…going nowhere.