By: Laura Shin
Part of the problem is that we are now bombarded with information. Two researchers from the University of San Diego, Roger Bohn and James Short, found that the amount of information—text, moving images, music and spreadsheet data—consumed per capita by Americans has increased 60% from 1980 to 2008—from 7.4 hours a day to 11.8. Shockingly, these figures exclude working hours.
While information is generally useful, we also need space from it for our own thinking.
Why? Concentrating on a thought isn’t about how much you focus, but about “how you inhibit the wrong things from coming into focus,” writes Rock.
“Your ability to make great decisions is a limited resource,” he says in Your Brain at Work. “This means not thinking when you don’t have to, becoming disciplined about not paying attention to non-urgent tasks unless, or until, it’s truly essential that you do.”
So what is this magical skill you need to master in order to think clearly in our hyper-connected, information-glutted society?
The ability to say no.
Given that we have a finite amount of time and energy, learning when to say no will help you spend the maximal amount of both of these precious resources on activities that will help you get ahead. It will help you block out everyday distractions, keep you on track to reach your real goals, and help you develop the skills most important for your work.
Saying no is useful in all kinds of circumstances. Try it out in these situations:
Not thinking during seemingly inconsequential periods.
Take, for instance, how you spend your commute. Many of us find that time to be a prime candidate for multitasking. Why not squeeze a podcast in, or write a few emails? But Rock says that rest is important to fuel our creativity and suggests that you could also just take in the scenery.
Not toggling your attention.
Turn off your smartphone during a meeting instead of idly checking to see what emails have come in. ”Once you open your email program and notice messages from people you know, it’s so much harder to stop yourself from reading them,” Rock writes. Your brain will start expending energy in one direction, and you’ll waste more energy snapping your attention back to the matter at hand. And every time you have to inhibit your impulse like that, your ability to do it again is reduced. Save the email for later, when you know you’ll be able to respond. Whatever you’re doing at any given moment, do that until it’s done, and then move on.
Not accepting unwanted emails.
As a journalist, I receive a large amount of email from publicists. I spent two hours going through my inbox and unsubscribing from all the emails that I don’t want or need and created filters for the most irrelevant public relations emails I receive so that those emails go straight to my trash. It was one big session of saying, “No, I don’t need that now or in the future.” I noticed an immediate reduction in the amount of distraction and mental crowding that email was bringing into my life. It also promptly boosted my mental energy for the tasks that really matter to my work.
Not letting the outside world interrupt your rest.
Institute a no-gadgets rule for nighttime. I don’t allow my phone or any other electronic in my bedroom during sleeping hours. I have a separate alarm clock and read books instead of my smartphone. Once I implemented this rule, I immediately noticed the quality of my sleep improved. I was less likely to wake up in the middle of the night and felt more rested in general. My mornings were also calmer since I wouldn’t check email while still in my groggy state but after I was more alert.
Not doing work inessential to your main duties.
When a task comes your way, ask yourself if it will get you ahead on your main responsibilities. If not, consider whether it needs to be done at all, or whether you’re the best person to be working on it. If you are part of a team, delegate it instead. Perhaps a more junior person could do it just as well—and get more out of it than you would.
Think of other cases in which a “no” will make your life saner. Doing so should free up more time and energy for what you truly value. And, it will help you achieve more with less effort.