“Did you see the news yesterday?!” “Try out this new diet!” “Subscribe to this online fitness class!” “Don’t forget about that deadline!”
We’re always hearing phrases like these, and a pandemic only turned up the volume and frequency — making mental clarity feel illusive.
Information overload and mental fatigue, there are entire companies and products dedicated to solving these issues. But, with an everchanging, increasingly-remote culture, time has not been the universal healer we are used to, and our mental fatigue is worsening.
In a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll, 53% of adults in the U.S. said that worry and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have negatively affected their mental health – more than 20% higher than the 32% reported just a few months earlier in March.
As we spend more time in our apartments and homes, like airline flights gliding thousands of miles over our heads, hours, days, and months can fly by rapidly and inconspicuously — leaving us behind, locked into the same chair, hoodie, and sweatpants from pandemic’s start.
We are beginning to lose track of the days, and more of our attention is focused on one of three items: our phone, our computer, or our TV. Unlike our personal lives, society is still moving, the news cycle has no end, and — for those lucky enough to remain employed — the line between home life and work life has disappeared. We are simultaneously as disconnected and connected as ever — disconnected from our past routines, friends, or family but even more connected to the seemingly endless sea of information, and the longer your mind is camped on your Instagram feed or on one of your several thousand browser tabs, the harder it is to leave.
Cal Newport, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and the author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, discusses digital burnout, information overload, and solitude deprivation. He writes:
“Solitude Deprivation [is] a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds . . .
Phones have become woven into a fraught sense of obligation in friendship. . . Being a friend means being ‘on-call’—tethered to your phone, ready to be attentive, online . . .
It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life. Thoreau and Storr worried about people enjoying less solitude. We must now wonder if people might forget this state of being altogether.”
And this “always-on, hyper-connected” phenomenon is amplified by our current reality. Whether it’s fueled by necessity or boredom, our screens grasp our attention from morning’s start to night’s end, maxing out our minds’ information capacities.
This isn’t something just time will heal, so how do we manage all this information and manage ourselves without throwing our pricey phones out the window or sending our TVs through our coffee tables?
How to Prevent Mental Fatigue & Information Overload
Always remember, you are not alone. There are several things you can start doing today to combat information overload and give your mind some much-deserved recovery time.
1. Never underestimate sleep.
Sleep gives your mind a fighting chance. According to a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, subjects who were limited to only 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When the subjects resumed normal sleep, they reported a dramatic improvement in mood. Like your legs after too many consecutive days at the gym, your mind can get exhausted. And like an overworked set of legs, your mind needs rest. Ensuring you get the restorative sleep your mind needs is a great way to help combat overload and mental fatigue.
2. Take control of your notifications.
Allow _____ to send you notifications. This phrase is something we all see at most app installations. Go ahead and hit Yes on their request, but only if it will be beneficial to you, and remember you always have the power to change your mind in your phone’s settings. If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by the number of notifications hitting your phone screen or watch face, take back control, and disable notifications. Does that third pop culture news app really deserve your attention anyway?
3. Feeling bored or overwhelmed? Start a new routine.
Something that we’ve lost to the pandemic is the ease of a routine. It’s definitely not impossible to have a routine now, but it does take a bit more energy — autopilot won’t do it, at least to begin with. With the slate clean, take this opportunity to create your own routine. Something as simple as choosing to start your days with a casual walk down the street and not with a sprint through your email inbox, or halting your daily information consumption a couple of hours before bed, can really help your mental and physical state.
4. Use your tech to schedule breaks.
One of the most frequently used phone features today is the alarm, but it doesn’t just have to be that sound that triggers a response that can only be described as the perfect combination of exhausted and furious. Instead, use your phone to set a Break Time Alarm. Carving out some time where it’s okay for you to stretch, walk to get lunch, or just grab a cup of coffee in silence gives your mind and body some time to rest and reflect. And it doesn’t just have to be your phone, if you have an online shared work calendar, try putting your break times on there to make sure your break times are truly for you.
- Panchal, Nirmita, et al. “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use.” Kaiser Family Foundation, KFF, 21 Aug. 2020, www.kff.org/health-reform/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/.
- Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Penguin Business, 2020.
- Dinges, D. et al., Cumulative Sleepiness, Mood Disturbance, and Psychomotor Vigilance Decrements During a Week of Sleep Restricted to 4 – 5 Hours Per Night, Sleep. 1997 Apr; 20 (4): 267–277.