I have heard from a number of colleagues that this presidential election just does not excite them and they are beginning to tune it all out. While someone could blame the candidates’ personalities or constant fighting, there could be a more simple answer: our brains are tired. Even for the smartest and savvy citizen, there is just too much information for the brain to handle. And having too much information does not just apply to elections, it applies to almost every area of our life.
Since disengaging from important decision-making or the political process is not an ideal solution in our society, the alternative is to get better at blocking out irrelevant information or stimuli and focus on what is important. Blocking out irrelevant information is harder than it may sound since we have been distracted for so long. How often have you been in the middle of writing an email when a co-worker pings you about lunch plans and you get distracted? But we cannot blame modern technology too much – our brains were distracted way before email and texts. Remember back in grade school when your teacher would say, “let’s focus” when another class walked by your classroom? Those kids walking outside the door were irrelevant to the day’s lessons, but nonetheless, we turned our heads to see if anyone in the class were our friends and wondered where they were going.
Getting information about current events can be just as challenging as it was to maintain focus back in grade school or to pay attention to work when lunch plans are being made. Today, new tweets come as quickly as you can read 140 characters. If you still get your news on television, especially cable television, multiple screens are streaming information while a reporter debates with 4 guests, each talking over one another (sound familiar presidential candidates?). And for those that read their news online, a flashing advertisement makes its way across your screen, or email and text alerts pop-up as your brain is trying to focus on the words on the screen.
How do you focus? When it comes to news, some people shut the door and turn off their phones while they listen or read to the news. At work, many executives download their emails and read them without being online to avoid distractions. Whatever your strategy, when you find your brain just can’t take it anymore, give it a break. Sleep, exercise, and fresh air all can help our brains process information more efficiently.
Here is the conundrum: If I am completely focused, other data coming in will not impact my ability to focus on the task at hand. If I am not engaged in what I am reading or listening to, I can easily get distracted by any other source of information. If you find yourself unengaged from decisions that impact your work and life, it may have nothing to do with the topic but rather the amount of information. As important as it is to tune into what is happening in the world, remember to also tune out to keep your brain happy.