It’s unavoidable. Living in post-industrial, 21st-century society means being surrounded by the accouterments of information technology. It’s there in our offices, in our cars, and in our homes. It’s even in the toys of our children, who no doubt will be far better at dealing with it than we will.
Fully one-third of us don’t deal with technology well, according to the research of psychology professor, author, and pundit Larry Rosen. He is the Paul Revere of the Information Age, warning us about the principal downside of silicon and software, which you or I just might experience one of these days. In a word, he says, it’s “technostress.”
Rosen, a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and company meetings about the impact of digital technology on our psyches, says anyone can get overwhelmed by the relentless march of technology.
I’ve personally seen people weaned on DOS batch files throw up their hands in the face of incessant hardware and software upgrades and stick with comfortable technology that’s as long in the tooth as it is short on helping them be most productive. Others have taken the counterrevolutionary step of actually returning to simpler machines such as typewriters.
These Neo-Luddites may represent the most extreme reaction to technostress, but if we’re smart about it, they remind us to try keep in balance the demands of the future with the need for some degree of stability and familiarity.
Rosen, who is co-author of the book TechnoStress: Coping With Technology @Work @Home @Play, has good ideas in his book as well as at his Web site (http://www.csudh.edu/psych/lrosen.htm). “You don’t have to do it all,” he said in a phone interview. “You have the right to make choices. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
He gave this example: Say you’re doing research for a report. Just because you can spend 5 hours surfing the Web and finding relevant information doesn’t mean you should. Similarly, just because you can immediately answer all e-mails doesn’t mean you should drop everything to do so.
On the other hand, don’t go to the opposite extreme of trying to do everything at once. Rosen has a name for this too: “multitasking madness.” By doing too many things at the same time, you don’t pay enough attention to any one task to do it well.
The theme is prioritizing—placing human constraints of your own devising on the technology. Prioritizing carries over into your personal life too.
You know the technology is controlling you (and not you controlling the technology), he said, if you’re getting yelled at by family members for spending too little time with them or if you’re having sleep problems because you’re overwhelmed.
“Know when to stop,” said Rosen, who teaches a course at California State University Dominguez Hills called The Global Impact of Technology. One of his students, business major Maria Garcia, sometimes feels overwhelmed with information, as do many of us.
She has found a solution in Rosen’s ideas by controlling the information onslaught. “What works best for me is to pay closest attention to information that applies directly to me, then sort out what’s important and what’s not.”
Technology can be a friend here as well as a foe.
By creating filters in your e-mail program, you can eliminate many irrelevant messages and have urgent messages from important people flagged for your attention.
By learning the advanced search procedures for Google or any other Web search tool you use, you can eliminate many irrelevant sites and home in more quickly on the information you’re after.
But some computer time-management tricks involve good old-fashioned self-control. Stop yourself from clicking on intriguing but irrelevant links when doing research on the Web. Manage e-mail conversations by selectively responding to messages and by matching the length of your response to how eager you are to continue conversing.
Finally, stop yourself from adding to the technostress of others. Keep your e-mail messages to one screen if possible, and use an informative subject line. If you expect a lot of back-and-forth communication, forgo e-mail completely and pick up the phone—it will be a lot more efficient.
With Web pages, put the most important information up front and break up pages with informative subheads so readers can get the gist of what you’re saying with a quick scan. Use clear, concise language to communicate, not bureaucratese to impress.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.reidgoldsborough.com.