How to protect your brain from the digital overload

Todoist. Clear. Wunderlist. Evernote. HabitRPG. These are a tiny fraction of the tools, both free and pay-for-use, available to corral your digital life into an appealingly clean "system". But maybe your to-do list isn’t weighing you down - perhaps email overload is your source of digital stress?

In that case, CloudMagic, Taskforce, or SaneBox might be what you need. If you’re fed up with media littering your desktop, there’s no shortage of listicles sharing naming convention tips and ways to weed out duplicate files, as well as companies peddling backup cloud storage or ever-larger hard drives.

Managing digital life is now an entire industry, and just sorting through the options can begin to overwhelm even the most organized person. In fact, sometimes it can feel as though we spend as much time overseeing digital activities as enjoying them - never mind how little time that leaves for 'real' life. But what does it do to your sense of wellbeing when you can never seem to climb on top of the mountain?

In 2011, it was posited by US military investigators that an erroneous attack that killed 23 Afghan civilians was due to none other than "information overload". Psychology Today hypothesises that our mammalian brains simply aren’t able to keep up with the speed of digital change, and so we’re beginning to feel overwhelmed by the rapid communication around us.

In extreme cases, medical researchers are seeing severe mental disturbance caused by digital overload that they are terming "postmodern stress disorder". In the collision of constant connectivity and mental health, mental health appears to be losing out.

Read: Five reasons to practise mindfulness in an accelerated world

Cognitive overload has been frequently identified as a major factor in the increasing reports of anxiety and a generalised feeling of being a failure. Many people feel less and less able to accomplish their goals, as no matter how many of their goals they achieve, there is always more to do, pinging away as push notifications and never-ending inboxes.

If digital overload is truly bad for our sense of self, is it possible to mitigate the stress of constant digital needs tugging at our attention - even if some of that stress had been self-manufactured through a fear of being disconnected?

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that there is an ever-increasing social pushback against constant digital connectivity, in large part because people are feeling less and less in control of the way they spend their time. 

This pushback has taken many forms, including employees requesting distraction-free workspaces, Facebook losing swathes of young users, and the almost ironic popularity of mental health and mindfulness apps that can simultaneously indulge a digital addiction while appearing to soothe it. A popular podcast, Note to Self, sponsored a recent project titled "Bored and Brilliant", where over 4,000 listeners participated in challenges to break some of their mindless digital habits (it’s still ongoing for latecomers who want to join up). And research by the California State University at Northridge that combined three different studies found that even a one-day digital detox can combat "distracted thinking and superficial learning."

If we want to be both productive and peaceful in the digital age, it’s important to think carefully about exactly what access we allow for tech in our daily lives. Evidently, our mental health depends on it.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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