4 Steps to Triumphing over Communication Overload

Back in the “olden days”—pre-smartphones and constant Internet connection—my mornings were my own. I’d get out of bed, make a cup of tea, and start my shower, reasonably sure nobody had tried to get in touch with me in the middle of the night. By the time I started getting phone calls or had to go out into the wider world, I’d had an hour or two in the relative quiet of my home.

These days, mornings can be the noisiest time of day: if not literally, then at least figuratively. I wake up with my phone—with its array of communication platforms—within arm’s reach of my pillow, and no matter how early I get up, it’s already full of notifications. Among Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email, voicemail, and texts, I often start communicating with people outside of my home before I’ve said a word to the people in it!

I’ve been making some changes lately to make my virtual life feel less noisy and more manageable. I found that a few small modifications have made a big difference in my stress level and productivity.

1. Manage your notifications

Remember, just a few short years ago, when you had to actually visit a website to find out whether someone was trying to communicate with you there? Now, every platform is an app, and every app is happy to ping you—whether with a text notification or an actual PING! sound—to announce every interaction.

We have a lot more control over these notification settings than we typically choose to use, and taking charge can allow us to ingest new conversations on our own time rather than being barraged by a constant stream of alerts. If your phone is constantly buzzing or beeping with the tantalizing news that you, yes you, have a new friend request on Facebook, you have the power to make that go away!

My personal strategy has been to find the types of notifications that make me feel the most distracted and overwhelmed and eliminate those first. For example, I realized that I don’t mind having the “banner” notifications on my phone—those little numbers over my app icons that let me know if there’s a message waiting for me—but I hate when they come through one by one or show up on my lock screen. In my email, I appreciate knowing when someone has sent me a private message on Twitter—which happens rarely—but I don’t need to be alerted every time someone favorites my tweets.

But if you aren’t sure where to start, you might consider going scorched-earth and then re-adding those notifications that you think would be useful to you. “I don’t receive notifications from any social network,” confesses blogger Mandi Ehman. “No friend requests, no likes or retweets, not even private messages. I need to be able to control when I look at those things, not have my inbox filling up or my phone beeping at me every five minutes!”

2. Convert voice messages to text

When I’m in a productive work mode, particularly when I’m writing, I find listening to a human voice to be very disruptive.

Google Voice was truly life-changing for me—it converts all my voicemails to a text format and allows me to view transcripts and to choose messages to listen to individually. Granted, often the transcripts are humorously inaccurate (pretty sure nobody regularly leaves me messages consisting of simply “hey, hello, hey, hello, hey, hello, hey, hello, hello, hey”), but there’s generally enough for me to get the jist and figure out whether I need to listen to it right away or if it can wait until I’ve wrapped up my work day.

3. Edit your feed

Back when I joined Twitter in 2008, I followed everyone who followed me. It felt like the polite thing to do, and besides, I was on it all the time, and the numbers didn’t seem overwhelming.

At some point, however, things got out of control. Before I knew what had happened, I was following close to 5,000 people. Twitter was no longer fun: instead, every time I visited it, I felt like I was being shouted at by thousands of strangers.

I decided to make a drastic move: I wiped out my entire following—down to zero—using a service called SocialOomph. I started slowly re-following people a few at a time, taking care to be a lot more selective this time around.

At first, I felt a little guilty about wiping thousands of people from my feed, but the way I see it now, my online needs in 2015 are different from what they were in 2008. We’re all so bombarded with messages nowadays, I have to believe my true friends will understand.

If you aren’t quite ready for a move that large, you can consider other options: third-party apps like TweetDeck and HootSuite make it easier to manage follows by separating them into lists, and you can tell Facebook not to show you messages from certain people anymore, without actually unfriending them.

4. Addeth apps, and taketh apps away

I’m not much of an app user in general, but I finally decided to break down and try Freedom. It blocks the Internet on your computer for the length of time you choose, up to eight hours at a time. NEED to get back online? You can always reboot, but having to jump through that hoop is usually enough to keep me from surfing mindlessly—and it gives me time for my self-discipline to kick in.

On my phone, I’m finding that less is more. I deleted the Facebook app months ago because, let’s face it, I really don’t need to check my friends’ status updates while I’m in a business meeting or standing in line at the coffee shop. If I have an app I want to check now and then but don’t need it staring me in the face all the time, I move it way over so that I have to swipe through several screens to get to it.

My colleague Dresden Shumaker takes it a step further: “I have zero way to access specific work emails when I only have my phone. This allows me to unplug from that area. During the day, I also have “do not disturb” on all text messages, and I turn my cell phone over.”

All strategies I’ll be implementing posthaste…because while it might feel a little uncomfortable to let a message go unanswered for hours in this world of constant contact, I keep thinking of what Dresden told me her grandfather would say while taking the phone off the hook before meals: “Just because someone has a quarter to call us doesn’t mean we need to take the call.”‬

I’m a big fan of the notion that we teach people how to treat us. And that can extend to technology too. While all those services and platforms vying for our attention would love nothing more than for us to see and immediately respond to every piece of data they throw our way, we owe it to ourselves to manage the flow…and make our worlds a little quieter at the same time.