Executives learn to see through the 'data smog'

When too much information undermines real connectedness.

Last week, Slate, an online magazine, posted a retrospective from David Shenk, the author of "Data Smog," a book about the perils of the information age.

In 1997, Mr. Shenk wrote that, thanks to the information revolution largely spawned by the Internet, we were in danger of being overwhelmed by too much information. He developed rules about "data smog," which were really observations on how digital information was starting to worm its way into people's lives.

Now, 10 years later, Shenk finds that he was wrong about some of his concerns. He concedes that he didn't foresee the importance of bloggers to maintaining the health of journalism. But his main theme has proven all too real. As Shenk wrote in Slate, we are increasingly struggling with too much data and how to process it – "a nonstop orgy of connectedness that can sometimes crowd out tenderness and meaning."

Shenk's reflections were posted the same day that I talked with Josh Ehrlich, an executive trainer with BeamPines Inc., a global human resource consulting firm, in New York. Mr. Ehrlich works with top-level business leaders on how to deal with the data smog issue.

Ehrlich teaches executives how to avoid being overwhelmed by technology and become better leaders along the way.

His job is to help businesspeople learn to turn off technology's siren call, so that it won't distract them from important issues or developing important relationships in the workplace. For instance, he talks about the importance of finding the right way to deal with the avalanche of e-mails that comes into their lives each day. "E-mail has such a power," Ehrlich says. "We feel we have to check our e-mail every few minutes. A lot of technology is like that. It's sexy."

But it can also be debilitating for a chief executive – or for anyone in any job, he points out. Distractions from technology can scatter our attention while in meetings or when we engage conversations with co-workers. It can also derail us from the task at hand. One survey showed it can take 15-30 minutes to return to a previous task after answering e-mails or a telephone call.

Ehrlich tells a story about one client who worked for a British company in Hong Kong. She regularly received 3,000 e-mails a month and responding to all that communication actually prevented her from doing her job.

"The ease of sending information – in this case from the office in Britain to the executive in Hong Kong – makes the problem worse," he says. "The information may be coming at us faster, but that doesn't give us the ability to process it any faster."

Ehrlich believes that part of the problem is internal. Humans, he says, are wired to constantly look for new things, to keep moving. And the information revolution of the past few years has given us more than enough stimulus to feed that particular beast.

Competition in the workplace plays a role as well. Many executives, Ehrlich notes, want to get as many e-mails as their co-workers do. If they don't, they think that they are "out of the loop."

Ehrlich works with executives so that they become masters of their technology and not the other way around. He advocates that you only check e-mail twice a day – "really chunk it so that it doesn't use up all your time."

And he wants executives to decide on a case-by-case basis if they want to deal with the various distractions that beckon them during the workday. Doing so is tough, he says, because Americans are not that good at being able to sit back and reflect. "We have to change the environment," he explains. If focus is needed for an important task, he continues, "turn off the computer screen or the TV or the BlackBerry. Make those structural changes."

More important, he says, "we have to discipline our minds to slow down."

When the cellphone rings or the instant message comes in, don't automatically answer on that first ring, he says. Pause a moment, take a breath, and decide if you want to interrupt what you're doing to answer. On the second ring, take another breath and focus on the new task. On the third ring, another breath, pick up and phone and connect with that person.

And if you can't avoid being interrupted during a conversation, you need to let the person you are speaking with know that you're expecting another call or important message.

Sounds easy, right?

It's not.

Sometimes it can take people years to unlearn old technology habits and develop new ones, Ehrlich says.

And sometimes we just have to say "no" to more technology, by not answering every cellphone call, or responding the every IM, or answering e-mail all day long.

Ehrlich believes that by following this path we'll do our jobs better and be happier, too. The trick, he says, is don't get on every "thought train" because they are not all headed where you need to go.

"You have to control your own attention, not let it be controlled by technology," he says.

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