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updated 10/9/2007 9:03:51 AM ET 2007-10-09T13:03:51

How bad is it for Adam Campbell? This is how bad: Before he can send an e-mail, he has to delete one.

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"Arggh," he grunts, staring at the error message on his computer. Adam has just finished composing an e-mail to his boss, postponing a 3 p.m. conference call.

But Adam's mailbox is so stuffed with messages that this new missive refuses to go anywhere. His fingers now stomp over the keys as he deletes some old (and useless? let's hope so!) e-mail. Finally, the message zooms off into cyberspace.

Across the cluttered office, noted psychiatrist Ned Hallowell, M.D., watches with a bemused look. "Adam," he says calmly, "why don't you just empty the whole thing out?"

It's a reasonable enough question, akin to asking a man who complains of headaches why he doesn't simply remove the railroad spike protruding from his skull. Adam seems a little flustered by it. Well, he starts to explain, I still need to respond to a lot of these e-mails, and, yeah, okay, some of them are, like, 9 months old, but... .

Suddenly Dr. Hallowell is on his feet and moving toward Adam's computer. He reaches into his shirt pocket for his reading glasses and peers over Adam's shoulder at the screen. Spotting just how many e-mails Adam has yet to respond to, he chuckles, then sits back down. For a moment it seems that Adam may continue protesting, but slowly a look of defeat washes across his face. "What are you supposed to do," he asks forlornly, "when you're down by 3,200 e-mails?"

It's a rainy afternoon in rural Pennsylvania, and Dr. Hallowell has come to Men's Health's editorial offices for a 21st-century Information Overload Intervention. Lord knows, the MH staff — in particular Adam Campbell, features editor — can use it. On a typical day, the two dozen or so people who put together the editorial portion of this magazine send and receive upward of 10,000 e-mails. That's 10,000 messages ranging from tiny, tinny "thanks" to epic, complex screeds rivaling documents put out by the Vatican. To say nothing of all the other information exchanges that take place on a daily basis: countless landline and cellphone calls, voice-mail and text messages, even honest-to-goodness, face-to-face conversations. It's a mushroom cloud of messages.

The same is probably true of your workplace. "Our brains field more data than ever before," says Dr. Hallowell, "and with no acknowledgment of it." Indeed, though most of us act as if nothing big has changed in our lives, Dr. Hallowell says we're actually in the midst of a historic shift not seen since Gutenberg fired up the first printing press.

The problem, as Adam Campbell and the rest of the Men's Health staff would be the first to attest, is that our Gutenberg-era brains may not actually be capable of handling all this Bill Gates–era info. Meanwhile, Dr. Hallowell himself — one of the country's foremost authorities on attention deficit disorder — says that in his private practice he's seen a spike in people reporting ADD-like symptoms: difficulty focusing, inability to complete a project, irritability, anxiety. To paraphrase Dean Wormer in "Animal House": Frazzled, distracted, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

The good news is that there are ways to regain control of our lives. And there may be no better person to help than Dr. Hallowell. A stocky, affable New Englander with wiry salt-and-pepper hair and bright blue eyes, he has spent the past several years focusing on how the pace of modern life messes us up. He wrote an award-winning book, "CrazyBusy," and frequently consults with corporations about how they can help their employees. That's his mission here today: to help three Men's Health editors — and by extension, you — manage the mass of information we all deal with.

The really good news is that none of the solutions involve tossing out our iPhones, dusting off our Leo Sayer records, and pretending it's 1974 again. Although maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing. As Adam says, "At least in 1974, 125 people weren't contacting me every day."

Case Study 1
Subject: Peter Moore
Problem: Brain Interrupted

When Peter Moore landed his first magazine job back in the '80s, the Internet, e-mail, and fax machines hardly existed. So, of course, the pace of life in the magazine business — and offices generally — was far slower.

But Peter, who as Men's Health's editor is essentially COO of the editorial department, isn't so sure that a faster pace translates to "more productive." At least not as far as his ability to edit a story goes. Today, this task is constantly interrupted by frequent, frequently urgent e-mails from MH's hard-charging editor-in-chief, David Zinczenko, and the rest of the staff. Peter appreciates the value of those messages, but admits they're a mixed blessing. "They sap my concentration," he says.

Now, conventional wisdom says that handling a few pressing e-mails and phone calls during the day shouldn't be such a huge deal. After all, do we not have big brains? Are we not multitaskers? The short answer, unfortunately, is no. Study after study shows that our gray matter really can't handle two complex tasks at once — at least not without slowing us down or screwing us up. It's why, for instance, someone on the other end of the phone can always tell from your distracted tone that you're checking e-mail ("e-mail voice," Dr. Hallowell calls it), and why studies say that talking on a cellphone while driving impairs you as much as having had a couple of drinks.

"Our brains have billions of neurons, each making thousands of connections, and yet the truth is we can really focus on only one thing at a time," says René Marois, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. In a study published last year in the journal Neuron, Marois and his colleagues used fMRI to show that an actual neural bottleneck occurs in our frontal lobes when we attempt to do two tasks at once.

And don't assume that once you've finished responding to an e-mail, you can seamlessly go back to what you were doing before. A study done at Microsoft last year looked at how long it takes people to return to a task when they're interrupted by an e-mail or instant message. The average: an astonishing 15 minutes. More than a quarter of the subjects didn't return to the task at hand for 2 hours. "It's inertia," says Eric Horvitz, M.D., Ph.D., the principal researcher for Microsoft Research and a coauthor of the study. "We found that people, once interrupted, take the opportunity to do other things, like check more e-mail. Or go to news or sports pages."

Dr. Hallowell calls this "screensucking," and he says it's a turbocharged version of a natural human trait: procrastination. "Technology gives us even more of an excuse not to do tough work," he says.

What's more, when people do finally start working again, they don't reach their earlier level of concentration for 10 additional minutes. Total time that can be lost answering just one e-mail: a half hour, and that's the best case scenario. "Every e-mail interruption is like a hand grenade being thrown in the middle of your brain," says Dr. Hallowell.

Disable your distractions

Protect your morning burst. That's what Dr. Hallowell calls the rush of energy and focus most of us have in the early part of the day, and he says we should be ruthless about shielding it from interruptions. His advice: Do 60 to 90 minutes of work in the morning before you check e-mail or go online. "Protect that time to do stuff before e-mail and other distractions," he says. "Be rigid: 'I'm going to do top-quality brain work.' "

Monitor your online time. How many hours does Web surfing suck up? If you use Firefox as your Internet browser, go to pageaddict.com and download the software, which gives you a summary of the time spent (wasted?) on each Web site. Or just measure your time with a stopwatch some day. When you see how much time you're wasting, you'll be more motivated to stop.

Case Study 2
Subject:
Bill Phillips
Problem: Overconnected

As much as modern technology drives us crazy, many of us can't get enough of it. "I check e-mail hundreds of times a day," says Bill Phillips, the magazine's executive editor. It's like an Information Age version of a nicotine addiction: the constant need to hit Send/Receive or glance at our PDAs in order to find out whether somebody somewhere is trying to tell us (or sell us) something.

Repeatedly refreshing your inbox at work has its own cost, but the bigger problem is the ability to read e-mail anytime, anywhere, which has obliterated the wall between home and office, work and play. "If I weren't checking e-mail 30 times in an evening, would I be writing a book?" Bill wonders. And this is to say nothing of the toll that e-mail addiction can take on personal relationships. Bill says that although his wife rarely complains, she did balk when he brought his BlackBerry on vacation and sat on the beach, firing messages back to the MH mother ship.

Why are we compelled to check our messages constantly, even though most of what we receive is only junk or more work? Sometimes it's pure fear: If you've taught your supervisor or clients that you respond to e-mail in 5 minutes, even on weekends, you become afraid of not knowing what's in your inbox. More often, though, what keeps us coming back is the possibility of a thrill: information we need for a project, great news about something, positive feedback from a colleague or superior.

Tom Stafford, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Sheffield in Britain and coauthor of the book "Mind Hacks," believes that what's at work with e-mail addiction is classic psychological behaviorism: operant conditioning 101. Basic psych theory holds that the best way to reinforce behavior is to reward it — but not all the time, only sometimes. If you want a rat to run through a maze, give him a piece of cheese when he makes it all the way through, but only occasionally, and at random intervals.

Stafford says there's a logic to this: The rat doesn't know whether the rewards have disappeared for good, so he'll run through the maze again and again, hoping that this time the piece of cheese will be there. The same mechanism operates with us and e-mail. We check constantly because every once in a while we receive positive reinforcement. In the end we're just rats looking for a piece of cheese.

Disable your distractions

Talk to your boss. Or your staff. Or your girlfriend. Or whoever compels you to constantly check your e-mail. Discuss whether an instant response during work hours is really necessary. In most cases the answer is no, which means that checking e-mail, say, every couple of hours should be fine. "It's important for managers to have discussions about brain management. It's not a power discussion. You all have the same goal," Dr. Hallowell says.

Change the office rules. Microsoft's Eric Horvitz has a name for the phenomenon of checking e-mail even when we're not at work: "competitive awareness." Dr. Hallowell says the only way to overcome it is with an organization-wide change of culture. "You need an agreed-on policy, rather than unwritten heroism." For instance, ban office e-mails between, say, 8 p.m. and 10 a.m. If you know it's against the rules to send, there's no need to stop watching "Lost" to see whether you've received anything.

Case Study 3
Subject:
Adam Campbell
Problem: In-Basket Case

Dr. Hallowell says that when it comes to technology, we tend to operate in one of two modes. The first, when we're performing well, he calls "C-state," C standing for calm, cool, collected. Its opposite is "F-state," meaning flustered, frazzled, frantic. Not coincidentally, the symptoms of F-state look a lot like those of ADD: difficulty focusing for more than a few seconds; a tendency to have a lot of projects going at once, with trouble completing any of them; a constant search for stimulation; and trouble with time management, including a tendency to procrastinate. "The busier you become, the less sense of time you feel, so that pretty soon there are only two times in your mind: now and not now," Dr. Hallowell says. "You try desperately to put as much as you can into the pile of not now."

Many days, Adam might as well have an F stamped on his forehead. Like everyone else, he's constantly interrupted by e-mail at work — except that when he opens a message, he frequently puts it aside until later. Hence his backlog of 3,200 messages. He's also unable to cut the cord between work and home. When he and his wife came home from a party one recent weekend, she pointed out that he checked his e-mail before he even took his coat off. Most significantly, despite putting in 12-hour days, he feels as if the bombardment of messages has him constantly overwhelmed.

Obviously, F-state can take its toll at work. But the problems run deeper. Dr. Hallowell says that in a 1970 paper called "The Experience of Living in Cities," the psychologist Stanley Milgram foreshadowed what many of us are now experiencing. Intrigued by the 1964 murder of a New York City woman named Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death as 38 people watched from their apartments and didn't call the police, Milgram was able to show that the more data we process, the more we're forced to screen out. It's why people who live in small towns tend to make eye contact and say hello when they pass each other on the sidewalk, while people who live in cities pass each other blankly. Milgram said people's "span of sympathy" decreases as the amount of data they have to process increases.

"This is the great danger of mental overload," Dr. Hallowell says. "You lose your judgment and ability to empathize with other people." It may be the greatest irony of the age we live in: The more ways we have to connect to one another, the less connected we really are.

Disable your distractions

Empty your inbox. But once you do it, you need to put yourself on a program. Dr. Hallowell's mantra is the classic "OHIO": only handle it once. Set aside a few specific times during the day to read e-mail — say, 10 a.m., after lunch, 3:30 p.m. — and when you do, act on the messages right away: respond, delete, forward, file. And allow yourself a few minutes at the end of the workday to zero-out your inbox.

Build the walls back up. Ultimately, the only way to stay in control of message overload, the only way to avoid F-state, is to artificially impose the boundaries that once existed naturally. More than anything, that means avoiding the temptation to check work e-mail from home. "Do the e-mails you receive after you leave the office need to be responded to?" Dr. Hallowell asks Adam. Adam shakes his head. "Then don't look at them. Tell yourself what you just said: It doesn't matter." In the beginning, it will be difficult. But eventually a new pattern will take hold and the fight will have been worth it

© 2012 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved.

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