Technology is an integral part of our lives, especially if you’re self-employed. As a consultant, your smartphone and laptop make it possible for you to find new clients and work with them remotely. But along with the many positive benefits of technology, it also brings a growing problem—digital overload.
Digital overload is nothing new, but it’s worsened substantially since the start of the pandemic. Microsoft’s annual Work Trend Index found that workers now spend more time online than ever before.
Most of us are sending more emails, responding to more chats, and attending more meetings. That’s borne out in Microsoft’s research, which found that its users sent 40.6B more emails overall, sent 45% more chats per person, and spent 148% more time in meetings each week in February 2021 compared to one year prior. Even though this communication is virtual and can happen at any time, most people feel the need to respond immediately.
Digital overload can take a serious toll on your personal and work life. But with the right strategies, consultants can find ways to lessen the effects of digital overload.
What is digital overload?
Digital overload is the feeling of constantly being connected to your devices. It’s the endless treadmill of keeping up with emails, messages, and notifications.
Here are some examples of digital overload:
- Too much screen time: According to a report from eMarketer, the average U.S. adult spends seven hours and 50 minutes a day on digital media, which is more time than some people spend sleeping. This average screen time increased 15% from a year earlier, and is the biggest jump since 2012.
- Information overload: Part of the problem with digital overload is the sheer amount of information we’re exposed to every day. And this goes beyond just emails and work conversations and extends to things like 24-hour news and social media networks. It can be hard to process the constant amount of information thrown at us, leading to feelings of distraction, anxiety, and fatigue.
- Media multitasking: Media multitasking happens when you switch back and forth between separate devices. For instance, you might check your email on your phone while checking your Slack channels on your laptop. Studies have shown that media multitasking makes it harder to focus and filter out irrelevant information.
5 tips for managing digital overload
So why is digital overload a problem? The short answer is that it can leave many people feeling distracted and burnt out. And while it may seem like you’re constantly busy, you may not be producing anything of real value.
There’s no quick fix to dealing with digital overload, but you can lessen its effects by making small lifestyle changes. Let’s look at five solutions to information overload for consultants.
1. Set communication limits
One of the hardest parts about consulting is the feeling that you always need to be available to your clients. And when you’re in the middle of a big project for a client, it may seem like the emails, and Slack notifications will never end.
It’s easy to get in the habit of constantly checking your email to see if something has come up, but this can be draining and unproductive. Instead, block off specific times throughout the day to check your email and Slack notifications. Most emails can wait a few hours to be answered, and in a true emergency, people will find a way to contact you.
2. Only use one device at a time
One of the best ways to deal with digital overload is to stop media multitasking. If you’re on a team Zoom call, resist the urge to pick up your phone and check your email at the same time. Focus on the task—and the device—that’s in front of you.
Of course, this can be difficult to do if you’re in the habit of checking multiple devices throughout the day. So the best way to start may be to put your phone in airplane mode while you’re working on your laptop or computer. And when you’re done with your laptop for the day, put it away, so it’s out of sight, out of mind.
3. Turn off notifications
If you’re looking for ways to reduce your information overload, consider turning off the notifications on your phone and laptop. Do you really need to know every time there’s a new Slack notification or when someone has tagged you in Basecamp? Consider that every message that pops up is costing you precious time and mental focus.
4. Prioritize other activities throughout the day
One of the best ways to improve your mental clarity and recharge is prioritizing regular breaks throughout your day. Find other activities to do that don’t involve screens, like taking a walk or fixing a cup of coffee.
And resist the urge to eat lunch at your desk while working. Having regular times when you step away from your desk to do something else will help you combat digital overload.
5. Create screen-free times
And finally, managing digital overload in your work life means you need to manage it in your personal life as well. It’s ironic because most people choose consulting for the freedom and flexibility it provides but then spend nearly all of their time chained to their laptops.
You may not have the option or even the desire to set regular 9-5 hours in your consulting business. But you should regularly designate time to unplug. For instance, turn on the “Do not disturb” feature in the evenings so your sleep won’t be interrupted by needless notifications.
And aim to have one day a week where you completely unplug from your devices. This may be hard to do at first, but over time, you’ll most likely find that the break rejuvenates you.
The bottom line
There’s no denying the benefits of technology and instant access to information. It’s what makes it possible for you to pursue consulting as a career and do the work you love. Putting boundaries in place around your screen time will help you minimize digital overload and stay focused on your main priorities.
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