“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”
— Carl Sandburg

When people talk about managing the balance of life and work, they are often addressing the amount of time they have for both, and the amount of stress caused when it seems they don’t have enough time to get everything done.

When people refer to maintaining balance, they often make the distinction between their job lives and their personal lives. They look at the concept much like you would a seesaw, with work on one end and their personal lives on the other. The problem with that view is that one end is always down, and the other is always up in the air.

Your work life is your personal life, and vice versa. The challenge is to make time for the things that are most important.

The answer, of course, is to “get organized.” Right? If you just get that next best PDA, all of your problems will be solved. Correct? Not necessarily, and according to some experts, the exact opposite of what you intended might be the result.

Many people today are becoming locked into a high-speed, technology-driven lifestyle in the belief that it will make their lives easier and give them more time to be productive and to enjoy the things that matter most. All of the tools you need are there—e-mail, PDAs, high-speed Internet and more.

The simple fact is this: the human brain can only handle and process so much information, and it can be easily overloaded.

How many times have you received an e-mail regarding a complicated issue at your computer and thought: “Let me answer this right now. That way we can avoid a meeting, and I can cross that off my list.” You quickly formulate a response, and then shoot off the e-mail.

You’re done, right? Not likely. Many times when I do this, before the message is even processing out of my inbox, I want to snatch it right back through the cables and back onto the screen.

Then what do you do? You write a second message to clarify or add to what you initially wrote. Also, even if you did manage to get all the right information out, you often end up bogged down in writing a barrage of e-mails back and forth to the person you originally wrote while the hands of the clock on your office wall spin in fast motion above you.

In a case such as this, technology has gotten you nowhere, and in fact, has made your life more complicated. Try this for your initial response instead, “I’ll get back to you by the end of the day.” Then respond near the end of the day. You’ll be surprised at the impact this action will have.

When you’re working on a long, involved project on your computer, do you stop what you’re doing every time the little bubble comes up in the corner to see what the e-mail message is about and whether you should respond immediately? Do you read each e-mail that comes in, filling your head with the information contained in them while trying to concentrate on your project?

When you spend all of your time trying to digest all of the information coming at you from these separate sources, your ability to focus on a task, and ultimately the quality of your work, can suffer. The worst part about it is that you have not gained any time. According to at least one expert, by relying on technology to organize your life, you could be creating a self-induced case of something very much like attention deficit disorder.

ADD authority Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, author of the book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap, calls this phenomenon brain overload, and he says it’s a national epidemic. He contends that by allowing this information overload, humans are expecting their brains to keep track of more than they are capable. In the book, Dr. Hallowell argues that brain overload may have reached a point at which our entire society is suffering from culturally induced ADD.

Are You Suffering Needlessly?

We live in a world where people expect instantaneous feedback. The problem is, if you as a leader provide that instantaneous feedback, it becomes expected of you, and it can become a trap. If you create the perception that you are always “on demand” it will eventually become your reality.

Also, think of the message it sends. If you as a leader respond immediately every time a message comes to you, what do people think? Are you sitting there doing nothing, just waiting for things to happen? Of course not—you’re being interrupted constantly, and everything else you’re trying to accomplish is being pushed farther and farther back. What often happens is that the really important things get left of the back burner, and you start to look like and feel like a procrastinator, when actually, you are just drowning in the process of receiving and giving information.

Eventually you reach a point of information overload. It drives you to a state of perpetual distraction and procrastination. Soon, the really important tasks you need to accomplish begin to be pushed back. It truly is like being afflicted with ADD. What you have done is over-organized yourself to the point where it is difficult to accomplish anything.

So what do you do about it?

The 19th Century English author and Parliament Member Charles Buxton once said: “You will never find time for anything. If you want time, you must make it.”

I found some good advice related to that quote on Dr. Hallowell’s Web site. In a recent newsletter from the Hallowell Center, a few tips were presented that are relevant in the workplace when trying to combat information overload and the problems caused by it.

One valuable piece of advice is to break large projects into several smaller time blocks. For example, you might have a management report or a paper that will take you three hours to create. Break the project up into three one-hour blocks. There is another very important step in this—you have to turn off the cell phone, close your e-mail program and just work on the project for one hour with no other distractions or interruptions. You will be surprised how much you accomplish in this manner. In fact, you might find that your three-hour project only takes an hour or 90 minutes under these circumstances.

By doing this you have not only created time for you to finish your project, but you have closed the information-overload pipe for a while, and you have sent the important message that there are times when you are simply too involved to be interrupted.

This concept also applies to making time to give yourself a break. Some people believe they thrive on the mad rush of activity and information coming from all directions, and they may, for a while. This rush can provide excitement and adrenalin. Just remember that adrenalin is a drug, and like with most drugs, you have to come down from them eventually. Sometimes you need a break.

Getting away and taking a break doesn’t mean you have to take a day in the mountains or a half day playing golf. It could be as simple as closing the door, turning off all of your technological umbilical cords to the outside world, putting your feet up on the desk and closing your eyes. I know people who walk out to their cars and turn their music on for a few minutes or take a walk in a park or garden to give themselves a break.

Such moments often let you take stock of the information overload you’re being bombarded with and allow you to decide how much of it is necessary, and how much is not.

Remember the old paper inbox, and how you always had a “maybe later” pile in there of things that you were going to get to? Remember how relieved you felt when you dug through it and got rid of a lot of things that you thought were hanging over your head, but ended up not really being all that important? In your new electronic world you actually have the same thing, but now it’s a monster.

Every once in a while you need to go back and do the same thing you once did in your old paper world, and clear out all of those “maybe laters.” You’ll find that you can ease your information overload in this manner, and this process can teach you how to filter what is crucial and what isn’t in the future.

Remember, take time away from your instant accessibility. Once people start realizing that there are times when you are unavailable, they will be much more respectful of your time and thought processes, and you will eventually become much more productive and less overloaded.