Monday, 5 May 2008

How to handle information stress

This spring, I experienced an unpleasant downside of Web 2.0 tools. During the last 9 month, I had accumulated a wide range of different web information channels and online tools regarding KM and Web 2.0. Everyday I was literally plugging my brain into an accelerating flow of information via RSS, Twitter, email lists, online fora, news websites, online social networking sites and portals, in my professional and my private life, from 9am until 12pm. Plus I was contributing to these channels myself by writing my own blog and twitter posts, as well using email and website applications excessively.

I hadn't recognized it at first, but after serveral weeks this spring I felt that I got more and more exchausted. Not physically, but mentally. It wasn't a classic burn-out, as I was still working normal hours, I didn't have immediate deadlines and the social climate at work was excellent. I just couldn't process information properly anymore. The Neurologist later said, that my brain had just been doing too much of the same activitiy, causing a neurological imbalance which resulted in a constant painful headache in the temples whenever I had been looking at a new RSS feed or Twitter message. Finally, the headache started even when I thought(!) of a website, and evenings or even weekends weren't enough anymore to recover. Was this the end of my way into the wonderful Web 2.0 world? Did I have to give up web-based knowledge management because it made me sick?

Well, today I'm working normally again and also resumed reading my RSS feeds, even though I'm still carefull. Several steps helped me to find the balance again. On one hand I first reduced the information overload as much as possible:

  • I took 1 week off from the screen and written text. No computer, no TV screen, no mobile phone display, no work-related text in paper. Without compromise, which of course means taking a week off from work (I even guess 2 weeks would have been much better, but my projects didn't allow me to).
  • After this week, I continued to ban Computer as well as TV from my private life for another 2 weeks (leaving a 'not available' message in my private mail and on Facebook). But at least I could work again.
  • Back at work after the week off, I scheduled my mobile phone to remind me to take a 5 min break from the PC screen every hour. For lunch I took a 90 min break of which I used 60 min to have a nap in an empty office. And of course, I tried to avoid overhours if possible for the first weeks.

On the other side, there were alternative activities which helped me to get my brain cleared out again:

  • Of course: sports! Running, biking, long walks, gym, ball games, everything where my brain doesn't have to think, but can loose itself in the physical activity.
  • Second, and more surprising: Singing! Sitting at home and playing guitar and singing along, or even joining a Karaoke party helped my brain to do 'something entirely different', thus getting refreshed.
  • Yoga exercises and meditation also contributed to my inner balance, as well as being out in nature.

After 4 weeks of this procedure, I now have the capacity again do my work 100%, plus writing on my blog, following RSS posts etc. However, I have learned that the ability to process information is not a given, but a skill which relies on a healthy mental and physical environment. If I have to work physically outside everyday, I need to treat my body carefully, give him regular rest, good nutrition and alternative activities to stay in balance. The same applies to the knowledge workers's brain, and I am actually glad I had the opportunity to learn this lesson now, which will enable me to effectively handle my professional life in the future. For work life in the knowledge age is very much about this one skill: how to effectively deal with information stress while delivering knowledge work results.