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The information opium

There has been an explosion of online tools and resources that - even while they're extremely helpful - can also be draining and time-consuming as we try to do everything at once.

It would make a pretty good plot for a Sci-Fi thriller. Aliens flood the world with cheap new technology that allows everyone to access unlimited information, stimulation and pleasant distraction. The information opium overloads people's ability to think, act and engage each other in conversation yet alone reproduce - civilization grinds to a halt.

Well maybe it's not a great movie plot, but there is a growing body of evidence that our skyrocketing tendency towards multitasking is taking its toll. And I am not simply talking about the folks that drive their cars into ditches while texting or watching a DVD. I am talking about the typical multitasking most of us do trying to cram more and more activities into a limited amount of time each and every day.

"One definition of multitasking - Messing up two things at once."

The impact this everyday type of multitasking is having on our performance is getting better understood by science. One 2005 study conducted at the University of London found, "Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers."

Other studies looking at brain activity have found that the concept of successfully multitasking is a bit of a myth.

When we think we are multitasking we are actually shifting scarce mental resources from one part of the brain to another. While we might get away with this in menial tasks such as walking and chewing gum, for more complicated tasks it definitely has its price. A study of brain activity from the University of California in Irvine found that if someone is distracted while engaged in one complicated task, it can take a full 25 minutes to get back to the same level of attention.

Work from the University of Michigan has also shown that multitasking releases significant amounts of stress hormones that negatively impact our health and memory. Higher levels of stress have been shown to greatly reduce our social skills, intuition, creativity and overall sense of well-being. The long-term impact this has on our relationships, our careers and our quality of life is just beginning to be understood.

The bottom line is that while it might be impossible to live and work in the 21st century without multitasking, taken to extremes it can lead to a shallow, anxious, unproductive, unhealthy, impatient, lonely existence. You may think you are getting so much done, but there is pretty good evidence to indicate you are actually less productive, less effective, less healthy and certainly much less fun to be around.

So I invite you to get very clear on what is most important to you, and allocate your time accordingly. And as relates to those key activities and key relationships that contribute the most to your success and happiness, establish a zero tolerance for distractions. It is very useful to create structures that limit your likelihood of being distracted. (For example some business owners and executives I know work from their home office several mornings a week to get some focused time on key productive activities. Others draw lines around when they turn off their smart phones and simply enjoy their private life.)

Also, the better job you do managing your overall stress level, the easier you will find it to keep present and resist the mind's temptation to fly out of the moment to battle some future challenge. It all comes down to better mind management. And if you take yours to the next level, it will pay big dividends.

Steve Mitten

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