Spreading Ourselves Too Thin

Funny how some of the older people would say that life is so much easier for us, the younger ones, these days, while citing that with the current technology that we have, we have ready access to all the possible information we could ever desire or need. They fail to realize the irony of the matter. Because while it is true that knowledge has increased with the advancement of mobile technology and with the internet being as common as bread and butter even to the common people, the rush and flood of information also hits each one of us daily like a 50-foot wave. We are literally drowning in information that we could barely hit surface and catch our breaths.

A few years back, on waking up, people would grab their towels and toothbrush for early morning grooming, or get the morning paper with a warm cup of coffee to start the day. Nowadays, we all grab our smartphones or tablets first thing in the morning to check for messages, emails, news, the latest Facebook post or Tweet….the list could go on. And for some, this is done over and over through the day, right through the very last minute before they retire on their beds. As a result, from the time we open our eyes to greet the day, to the moment we close them to go to sleep, our minds are constantly bombarded information, relevant or garbage. I read about a recent study that showed that in the US, the average time a person spends in front of the computer is about 13 hours. This is almost the entire waking period for many of us. I am assuming that with the stronger mobile technology that we have, and with the internet literally at the palm of our hands, those hours have probably increased.

There are probably highly productive people who have mastered the internet and social media, and have not been entrapped by it. Many of them, have actually used technology to further their causes. But the majority of us are still “victims” of the information overload. The constant bombardment of information have caused our minds to whirl and rev madly like a muscle car trying to win a drag race. But unlike a drag race that ends within a few seconds, this one just continues to loop endlessly, dragging us down, causing us to be tired chronically. Our brains are not designed to be exposed to a constant barrage of information, no matter how good or intelligent we are. For a short period of time, we may be able to cope and keep on with our work, but the constant revving will eventually wear us down and break us. The most creative minds are those who have found a way to space out, and control the amount of information they process. These are the happy productive people who are not burned out and who maintain good and healthy relationships with everyone around them. And those who subject themselves to a barrage of information and constantly work 24/7 are those who “might still be productive” but are beginning to or are already burned out, and have hurt people around them.

Doctors, like me, are not immune to this. Despite being trained to process volumes of information, we still fall victims to wave after wave of information that we are exposed to these days. Our knowledge has increased with more access to journals and scientific papers, but the avalanche of medical information that our minds need to sift weighs heavily on us. Every day, each breakthrough and discovery is analogous to wave after wave that drowns us; the information comes in faster than our minds could actually process. We have created EBM, critical appraisal, and other techniques to handle this. Still, it is so much more difficult for a doctor now that it probably was for a doctor 10-20 years ago. The tougher restrictions on information processing and release have only made it tougher on each one of us also. And flitting from one social media to the next, while trying to learn new stuff, only makes the situation worse. It’s like drowning in Manila Bay, with all the garbage around. (For this reason, I have actually minimized my use of social media, restricting it to INTENTIONAL communication with distant friends and family and posting of photographs; this keeps me from compulsively checking the latest post or tweet.)

In the end, we have attained much information – in fact, a good breadth of information. But that didn’t necessarily make us more knowledgeable, creative or wise. Only more tired, and sometimes, more confused. Wisdom and creativity is going deep. It is attaining mastery and control. It is achieved not by volume but by focus. And it needs spaces of rest and reflection, time away from information, time away from the waves, time to keep dry, in between.

With so much information at our hands, to focus is a tall order. But it is the only way to avoid the trap of spreading ourselves too thinly…