It turns out there can be such a thing as too much communication, and it’s really getting us down at work. A constant barrage of email threads, messages, pop-up reminders, video meetings and other always-on comms has modern workers buckled at the knees.
In Microsoft’s latest Work Trends report, released in May, it refers to the phenomenon as “digital debt”. In short, when you have more notifications and digital interactions than you can keep up with, you’re in digital debt.
Why digital debt is toxic
We already know that our reliance on, and exposure to, technology comes at a cost. In 2017, researchers found a link between smartphone notifications and brain chemistry. The study showed that smartphone-addicted teens were much more likely to be depressed, anxious, or impulsive.
Six years on, and things aren’t better. In fact, our digital reliance is even worse. Even among grown adults, being always on the grid sets a tone of high alert, and increases the sense of urgency and pressure to respond in some way.
Digital debt taxes productivity, because doing all that digital admin shuts off the flow state required to really get work done. Busywork takes over. And poof! Productivity vanishes into an ever-present cloud of notifications, follow-up, flags, threads, reminders and pings.
And as for creativity or innovation? Forget it. Handling the tools that were supposed to help us has become the deepest time-sink of the day.
So, what can be done?
The well-meaning concept of the “digital detox” exists for a reason, but it often fails because the more diligent a person is, the less likely they are to switch off or even mute notifications.
For this reason, the remote working practices of the pandemic led millions of employees to work later, unpaid hours, as people found themselves blending family time with work time. Self-imposed digital detoxing is only as effective as a person’s willpower, or as limited as their ambition.
There are ways to use digital clutter against itself, however. You can set up email and messaging filters, carefully manage notification settings on all platforms, and block off parts of the day just for clearing some of that digital debt.
AI in shining armor
The bitter irony of all of it is that the most promising superhero to fire-fight our digital burden is artificial intelligence. Burdened by tech? Throw more tech at the problem.
But this time it might just be different. Microsoft’s Copilot bot has been updated to leverage AI into a secretary of yore, to summarize a long email thread or to draft a longer message. Using scanning tech, it plays file-fetch too, saving you from having to trawl through folders for the information you need.
Thanks to advances in AI, intelligent assistants are getting smarter and workflow automation tools are taking over busywork, low-value work and repetitive tasks.
According to Microsoft, 49% of people say they’re worried AI will replace their jobs and yet 70% said they would delegate as much work as possible to AI to lessen their workloads. Sure, some of us may view AI as the grim reaper, but it looks as though a lot more of us are excited to let it pull us back from the brink of burnout.
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This article was written by Dara Flynn.