Cleaning up your virtual clutter - The Explorer: Editorials

Cleaning up your virtual clutter

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Posted: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 6:00 am

Everything I read confirms that the first step in overcoming a problem is admitting you have one, so I have an admission; I have VCS (Virtual Clutter Syndrome).

I can’t seem to hit the delete button purging multiple e-mail inboxes of mounting clutter, yet I find it effortless in offering rationale for retaining each e-mail. But I’ve decided that today’s the day I’m cleaning up my e-mail house and dumping most of this virtual baggage.

The catalyst for my action came from reading a psychological synopsis focusing on brain overflow due to information overload caused by technological or computer dependence. Technology, most notably our computer, has allowed us to become lazy and complacent. We’re lured into thinking that if we can’t see it then it can’t be messy. When computers become interactive we’ll hear a gruff digital voice say, “Hey, clean up this mess, my hard drive is choking.”

I, like many of you, recognized years ago that we’ve become emotionally conjoined to our computer, but we rationalize this addiction as being a natural societal and oftentimes work- or hobby-related evolution. We mentally multi-task and computers make it easier. Even worse, we acquire an attitude about competently handling simultaneous tasks with ease. We’re overloaded and approaching our maximum stress point. I often

stop and regroup because my computer desktop is cluttered with open files and web pages. If that stuff was physically sitting on my desktop in a traditional workplace office, I couldn’t stand the site of it, let alone do anything productive with it.

You may recall attending productivity seminars and time management classes. Precursory time and motion studies conducted over a century ago were designed to evaluate and determine precisely how tasks involving physical labor could be performed more efficiently. The results were irrefutable and utilized by managers in sectors where labor intensive outcomes directly influenced profitability. Today a time and attention study would reveal that managers and everyday folks, including retirees, exist in a series of one interruption after another, multiple calendars and to-do lists, and other reminders of what needs to be done but rarely happens, especially during the desired timeframe. No surprise; it’s generally due to self-inflicted information overload and undue reliance on technology.

Conversely, economists often argue that technology actually drives productivity when properly applied and utilized. Possibly, but no one has offered any form of control or effectual monitoring system ensuring preclusion from becoming technologically overloaded in the first place.

Factually, our brains evolved in a far slower and simpler environment while technology has been based on speed and capacity from inception. Brains are comparable to antique automobiles when gauged against modern computers, and they don’t handle interruptions and sidetracks efficiently or quickly. A brain takes time to get “back on task.” Humans have working memory and long-term memory much akin to a computer hard drive where information is permanently stored and RAM that’s used for temporary storage during the completion of

a mental task.

Complicating the issue is the brain’s inherent design having these types of memory constantly competing. Neuroscientists confirmed that the working memory in an average brain has a short life and limited capacity for storing only four items. Attempting to remember a new phone number or street address while concurrently carrying on a conversation often causes us to forget the numbers; aging doesn’t help.

Alternatively, long-term memory is encoded in the strength and topography of connections between neurons in the occipital and temporal lobes. Attention span works the same way; neurons increase their activity as we focus and concentrate, but immediately slow down during interruptions. Our brain can multi-task or perform many functions simultaneously such as watch TV and drink water, but it can only pay close attention to one thing at a time. We’ll have trouble focusing on what’s going on around us at this moment because of external and subconscious distractions. 

We have ancient brains while living in a fast-paced, high-tech, evolving world, and the pace is accelerating. We’ve become focused on too many trivial interests and activities concomitantly without pausing to train our brains for the challenge.

Some neuro researchers believe our brains have inherent plasticity limitations and we may be approaching its limitations; others deduce that employing brain-boosting activities, such as crossword puzzles, board and Wii games and physical activities including Tai Chi and Yoga, increase brain capacity.

From now on, every time I learn something new I’ll need to forget something.

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