In April 2008, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about “The Great Forgetting.” He said that the 21st century will probably be known as the Bad Memory Century. It’s not just aging baby boomers who are suffering from memory lapses and “where did I put my keys?” Teens and twenty-somethings are just as afflicted as they confront endless streams of data, information, music, entertainment and chitchat through their ever-expanding warehouse of digital tools.
It’s gotten so bad that the dean of the University of Chicago Law School turned off access to the Internet in his classrooms. In an email to his students, Dean Saul Levmore said, “We have a growing problem in the form of distractions presented by Internet surfing in the classroom.” He warned that “class has come to consist of some listening but also plenty of emailing, shopping, news browsing and gossip-site visiting.”
It’s no wonder that a new academic discipline has begun to emerge at some of the most elite business schools in the country, including Harvard. The course, Attention Economics, is based on the book by Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck, The Attention Economy (Harvard Business Publishing). Getting and keeping people’s attention long enough to attract them to a new product, or idea is becoming as difficult as maintaining focus in the classroom, at work or even at dinner with the family.
That’s where the number seven comes in. Using seven as a filter for managing all the digital noise in our lives is one way to avoid the kind of mental hopscotching that can undermine our happiness, our relationships, and our success. The idea is based in part on the work of a former Harvard professor, George Miller. In l956 he wrote the seminal paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” and proved that we can only hold seven independent objects in our short term or working memory—seven numbers, letters or words, for instance.
But in today’s world, paying real attention to what someone is saying, being able to read long passages without interruption, or simply letting our brains idle and daydream without constant distractions is virtually impossible without a conscious effort to eliminate the external.
Companies like IBM and Intel have been looking for ways to increase worker productivity by limiting interruptions and distractions. According to Jakob Nielsen, an Internet usability specialist, a one-minute interruption can easily cost a worker 10 to 15 minutes of lost productivity—the time needed to recapture the context and get back into flow.
But that’s not all it costs. More than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, according to The New York Times. The greatest interruption assaults, of course, come from email. Rescue Time, a free Internet application, lets users block distractions for a fixed period of time and shows you exactly how and where you’re spending time online. It’s like a Weight Watchers for obsessive email checkers. Rescue Time claims that someone who’s on a computer all day typically accesses his email program more than 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times. And Google Labs recently launched Email Addict, an app that “lets you take a break from email and chat by blocking the screen for 15 minutes and making you invisible in chat.”
Finding ways to cut through the digital clutter in our lives is a Herculean task. But if you limit your to-do list to seven items a day (varied between small medium and large tasks) you’ll have a shot at controlling your day and actually accomplishing those tasks. As a manager, having more than seven direct reports can mean never having enough time to work with your staff and plan the strategies that will grow your company or eliminate wasteful practices. And in your personal life, overbooking your seven-day week means blowing off friends, family, or even love-making with your significant other. Instead of canceling the best of life, I believe there are seven ways to simplify the overwhelming choices we confront every day:
1. YES: Ask for help, pay for help, or say yes to an offer of help.
2. NO: Learn how to say no to too many social engagements, too many favors, too many extra projects at work, too many irrelevant solicitations from spammers and direct mailers.
3. STOP: The clock. Life isn’t a 24/7 merry-go-round. If it were, you wouldn’t get the seven hours of sleep necessary to keep you fit and sane.
4. GO: Keep in shape with an exercise routine you can stick to.
5. START: Use technology so it doesn’t use you up. Online banking, and shopping ,for instance, will save you time, money, and stress.
6. END: Clear the clutter, trash the trivial, Get organized.
7. BE: Make time for family, lovers, friends (not just the hundreds you have on Facebook). Learn how to breathe and daydream. Be your true self and find your humanity.
Jacqueline Leo is Director of Digital Operations at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Her new book, Seven: The Number for Happiness, Love, and Success, is being published this month by 12, part of the Hachette Book Group.