Yesterday I was nearly bowled over by a man texting as he walked down a busy street in Manhattan. I hope he looked up long enough to stop at the light at the next corner. I was angry, and yet I also had to admit that I too have looked at messages on my Blackberry while I walked. At times it seems impossible not to – in order to keep up with the constant tide of email. Message overwhelm is a problem I hear about from many people. With email, voicemail, and IMs often coming from multiple accounts, trying to keep focused on your current task at hand can be difficult, even if it is walking down the street. The temptation of the new mail pop-up or IM alert can seem too great to ignore.

However, plenty of studies have shown that multitasking can actually make you less productive and less efficient by creating extended periods of ramp-up and refocus as you move between tasks. A recent New York Times article entitled “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” talked about the impact this is having on high school students. It cited research that the developing brains of young people may become “wired” to constantly switching tasks, thus making it more difficult for them to sustain attention and get done what they truly need to get done.

Multitasking also clearly takes one away from paying attention to the tasks, or people, in front of us. Hence the man who nearly knocked me down. It keeps us from actually spending time with other people, and knowing – and acting like – we’re there. We’ve tried to combat that in my family. We have established rules about screen time. Close Facebook and AIM during homework time. No electronic devices at the dinner table. It seems obvious, but the desire to stay connected has taken hold of many of us, and can keep us from actually connecting to the people in the same room. How often have you gone to a restaurant and watched diners texting and checking email instead of talking to the person at the same table? Or watched a parent hand over his cell phone to a fussy toddler so the child can be quiet and entertain herself rather than taking the time to interact with the child?

It’s time to take control – and not allow our technology to dictate how we spend our time. Adopting new habits to manage message overwhelm and minimize constant multitasking will help us to be more present, look up from our screens, and notice the people around us.

An article in this month’s Entrepreneur magazine offers a few great tips for managing message overwhelm. You can read it here: The New Attention Deficit.

What tactics have you used for yourself and your family to better manage message overwhelm and screen time? What tips can you share?
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