Information overload has become an everyday experience for anyone who works with computers, owns a smartphone or waits at a bus stop with minute-by-minute updates about arrival times.
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And this information overload has been cited as a major factor in the rise of stress-related diseases. Some advocate a digital detox as the antidote to the curse of email, social media and constant communication but for many, that is just isn’t practical.
Others are turning to traditional mindfulness meditation techniques as a way of managing their digital dependence without having to switch off from their everyday lives entirely. It’s seen as a way to calm the mind and help the body to cope with the overwhelming amount of data coming our way from all different directions and sources.
As long ago as June 1983 Time magazine ran a cover feature on stress as a modern anxiety. Three decades later, answers to the problem are being put forward by that same magazine. A February 2014 issue of Time featured a cover that read: The mindful revolution: The science of finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.
In 2014, Time readers, like many others, want practical solutions to their stress. We answer work emails while waiting in a supermarket queue, we pay bills while preparing dinner and we follow our favourite celebrity’s tweets while we eat it. We can begin to feel like we couldn’t escape all the stimuli even if we wanted to.
Answer your work email on the weekend often enough and you can feel like it’s expected of you to do so all the time. Once you are used to receiving a constant stream of news, you start to feel lost without it. That can cause anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness has been described as “a moment-to-moment attention to present experience with a stance of open curiosity”. It’s our ability to deliberately become more aware of the present moment and less caught up in our regrets for the past or anxiety for the future.
Mindfulness is using the brain’s ability to change and became stronger when trained accordingly, an ability called neuroplasticity, which is comparable to a muscle changing as a result of physical exercise. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is a training programme developed by Jon-Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center that draws on this trait and aims to complement medical treatment for chronic pain and stress related disorders.
Then there is the use of mindfulness as a business tool. Mindful leadership, for example, is often viewed as a way to help individuals and organisations to be successful while also being kind and thoughtful. The search inside yourself programme developed by Google’s Chade-Meng Tan, is an example. Tan urges people who take his course to cultivate emotional awareness as a way to handle the stresses of work. The trend has spread and mindfulness meditation has been common practice at companies across Silicon Valley.
Your daily dose of mindful
Away from Silicon Valley, there are small steps we can take to bring mindfulness to our digital lives. Email is a good place to start. It is believed that most people overindulge in mindless emailing as it is considered a quick and convenient way to communicate.
In a study conducted by the University of Glasgow and Modeuro Consulting, executives at the utility company London Power were asked to be more mindful about the emails they send to staff and to think twice every time they were about to hit the send button. As a result, email around the office was reduced by half during the study, leading the researchers to conclude that the company could save 11,000 working hours a year as a result.
Mindful emailing includes practices such as taking three breaths before responding to a stressful email and also considering the psychological effect that the email will have to the recipient or recipients.
Social media, which feeds our desire for constant information sharing, is another practice that, when done mindfully, can become a fruitful social interaction rather than a mindless disruption.
Mindful use of social media includes checking our intentions before uploading a feed, being authentic in our communications and choosing the time we spend on social media rather than falling in to it. That way, we give it some of our spare time rather than allowing it to creep around the fringes of our whole life, potentially disrupting us at any time.
These are all relatively small steps but rely on the user of a technology to pause for thought as they go. It’s a simple technique that many think has had significant results in a variety of contexts. We’ve been coping with our very modern malady for decades, perhaps we are finally making some progress.
Anastasia Papazafeiropoulou is Director of Postgraduate Studies at Brunel University. She receives funding from the European Commission, Royal Academy of Engineering and EPSRC.