Limiting Sensory Overload

Use electronics, don't let them use you

Posted by Leo Lu on July 24, 2017

Back then, we used to remember our friends' phone numbers. We also didn't have schoolkids sitting at the lunch table engaging with nothing else but their phones, nor did we feel that surge of excitement upon feeling that vibration in our pants pockets due to the incoming notification. I'd talk more about our decreased abilities in concentration, memorization, or even falling asleep but I don't have the scientific evidence to back it up (but you can find it online); nevertheless, it is quite evident that we are are spending a disproportionate amount of time on our electronic devices, primarily smartphones.

The invention of the push notification served as a double-edge sword. We are now able to get instantaneous updates from social media, messaging, and other apps but we become like Pavlov's dogs the moment we feel the vibration from the notification. That could mean anything - a message from a friend, a crush, or just a junk email. This variable reward system is akin to a slot machine as every time the button is pressed, a different outcome can occur and we are all waiting in excitement for the result. A refresh of the newsfeed can bring about anything, something that makes real life seem slow and boring in comparison.

Awareness is the first step

Now, modern-day technology is not all bad. What's important is to ask if this technology is helpful or not, and when to use it. By developing an understanding of habits, routines, and priorities, one can harness technology while still allowing for increased concentration, improved relaxation, and uninterrupted reflection.

Pomodoro Technique

A concern with concentration lead me to look into the subject of deep work, periods of short, intensive work for twenty to thirty minutes followed by a break. I liken it to a series of uninterrupted sprints as opposed to a slow slogging through the work at hand. Instead of focusing moderately on working while allowing room for interruptions such as notifications from my phone, I spend bursts of time completely immersed in the task at hand with break times allotted to check on what's going on. Essentially, one's ability to focus is limited even without electronics and so we need to take short breaks, repeating the cycle of twenty minutes on, five minutes off or any other variation (look up the "pomodoro technique" for more information).

Quiet Periods

In an effort to get better quality sleep, I stopped using electronics an hour before bed. Instead, I'd allot the time to brushing my teeth, playing guitar, reading, and journaling to reflect on the day. I do these activities in any order. The purpose behind this is twofold. First, these activities don't take up much of my energy and therefore allow my mind to unwind before going to sleep, leading to me falling asleep faster. Second, electronics emit light known as blue light and our bodies are tricked into thinking that it is still light outside, keeping us awake. This hour-long quiet period before bed has become a habit of mine and has certainly improved my restfulness.

Establishing Discipline

They say that walking helps with idea generation and recall, and I agree wholeheartedly. Living in New York City, it's hard to find peace and quiet. I find it when I walk from place to place, particularly when I'm commuting. During a typical weekday, I spend around eight hours in front of a computer screen and so I use the time it takes getting into work to prepare for the workday and the commute time after work to unwind. Whenever I am walking from destination to destination, I tend to refrain from looking at my phone because these tend to be my moments of inspiration, when I think of something or recall a passed thought. Given how I don't have that much time per day that I can spend unplugged, I take advantage of what time I do have.

Prioritization comes next

I've listed several ways in which I limit sensory overload, and I'm positive they cannot be applied to everyone. We all have unique situations, what's important is to understand what the trade-offs in our actions to achieve an optimal balance between using the information we are fed vs. becoming hooked to it. Email notifications come to mind - I used to have my gmail notifications disabled on my phone, checking email manually three or four times a day. Due to an importance to be on notice regarding a side project of mine, I've had to re-enable them. While email is something non-negotiable for me, social media is only important in some functions. I mainly use Facebook for the messenger feature as well as events, and thus I only have the messenger app installed, relying on checking the browser-version of the site (ideally) once a day for notifications. On apps such as LinkedIn or Reddit, I set the options to notify me only if someone sends me a message, thereby limiting the amount of information delivered to me.

Ultimately, limiting sensory overload comes into direct contact with establishing habits. This takes time - some say that it takes 21 days for a habit to form. Luckily, we as humans are highly adaptable in nature and thus, just as we have easily been conditioned to respond to the varieties of stimuli from our phones, we can slowly reverse these habits. What's important is to take an active approach in prioritization, and then executing on it. Having been born in 1994 before the days of smartphones, I got to experience life without unnecessary digital interruption, and I believe with the right discipline, much of that can be recreated.