Working online: How to prevent information overload

Now that half of the world population is on lockdown, cell phones and computers allow us to be in contact with our relatives, to stay informed, work from home and ensure children’s learning. However, it is sometimes difficult to take a step back, prioritise information and reflect on our reactions to it.

In this blog, we share some tips to help being more mindful about our use of technology. They are inspired by Dr Anna Cox’s advice on successfully working from home and by the advice published by five French experts in Cognitive Psychology, Information and Communication (Dr. Gaël Allain, Dr. Caroline Cuny, Dr. Aurélia Dumas, Prof. Fabienne Martin-Juchat and Dr. Julien Pierre).

Identify where the information comes from, and give a clear function to each device

Defining which tool or platform to use for work, and which one to use for leisure, can help to regulate the flow of information we are receiving and ultimately keep a good work-life balance. Are we available on the phone, by text, email? All of them? Is that necessary? We have all received this text saying: “Have you seen my email”? This can be particularly stressful if we were about to use our phone to call a friend on the evening. A specific mailbox can be used for work, and another one for our private life (e.g. online orders and deliveries, family messages). Some people are lucky enough to have two separate cell phones; a professional one and personal one. If that is not the case, rules can be set up when using a cell phone for work – it might be that you would like to book an appointment to receive a call, or to use your phone only in case of emergencies.   


Make this organisation explicit to your colleagues and friends

People will then know how to reach you. This is only one part of the story because setting up a timeline is as important as setting up devices. When can people expect a response from you? Instant messaging can make us feel that we are “late” if we don’t reply immediately. Specify within which hours, and which days of the week you can reply, and pay attention to your correspondents’ own organisation. Some prefer to work outside of typical working hours (e.g. early in the morning or late in the evening). Others prefer to take more breaks during the week and work on the weekend. Being clear about each other’s organisation can help setting up clear expectations, and smoothen communication.

Dedicate specific times to reply to emails, and turn off notifications when engaged in “deep work”

It is difficult to ignore a message once we heard it coming. Mailbox and messaging applications also often display a preview of what we have received. Reading this preview makes us process the content, and anticipate our reply. Even before noticing it, our current train of thoughts is interrupted. You might want to decide: (1) For which platform notifications are necessary, (2) Which type of notification you want to have. A colour patch, for example, is less distracting than a preview because it does not indicate the content of the message. The overall idea behind such management is to limit interruptions.

We lose, on average 30% of our time dealing with interruptions. This percentage can reach 50% when we are focus on an activity that requires to keep multiple pieces of information in mind.

This loss of time is caused by: (1) the interruption itself and our response to it (e.g. replying to the email that just popped in or even just thinking about it); (2) The need to focus back on what we were doing before. Cognitively speaking, interruptions challenge our working memory, by adding to the amount of information we need to keep in mind and process at the same time. Furthermore, we don’t really multi-task (e.g. do two things at the same time). Instead, we constantly, and quickly switch between one activity and another. The more interruptions we have, the more we need to switch.

Process information sequentially

Instead of trying to process everything at the same time, we can plan and organise our work to do one thing after another. This is true for the multiple tasks we need to do, as well as for the multiple emails we need to respond to. A first step might be to go through your tasks and messages, and consciously decide which ones are the most important. Identifying a group of messages with similar content can help making links between the different pieces of information, thereby reducing constraints put on our working memory. Labels can easily be set up in most messaging services.

Respond, not react

Online communication is cognitively, but also emotionally stringent. By taking some time to process information, we can avoid getting caught in a constant escalation of emotional reactions, take time to reflect on our and others feelings, and ultimately respond in the most appropriate and adapted way as possible. Stress can lead us to react quickly, intuitively, without considering alternatives or weighting the pros and cons of our behaviour. This is why it is important to stop and think. In other word, to respond, and not only react.

Adapt your organisation depending on your current objectives and on your current situation.

Some days, we need to engage in deep work and achieve a specific objective (e.g. planning a lesson, writing an article). Some days, we mainly need to adapt. Now more than ever, important changes are happening every day and require us to adjust quickly. For example, in previous weeks, we faced the interruption of face-to-face teaching and closure of schools. It would have seemed unreasonable, in this situation, to completely shut down our emails and keep focusing on preparing a teaching session that would have needed to be modified anyway. However, regulating online communication does not mean being oblivious or dull. Even, and maybe especially in time of crisis, mental health services recommend to take “information breaks” in order to appropriately process the information, and take time to “respond”, not “react”.

Finally, taking time off from the screen gives some more freedom to our thoughts and helps to reorganise what we have processed. Activities such as cooking or listening to music, can all help to get back to our senses and release stress. At the end of the day, good sleep will help to reorganise what we have learnt and prepare us for another challenging day!

For more information about mental health and wellbeing, follow @UCL_Wellbeing

Written  by: Dr Jessica Massonnié

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