In a perfect world, technology would help drive productivity across every industry. But the impact of constantly being connected to the internet, scrolling through emails, sending tweets, posting to Facebook, and consuming an endless stream of data is remarkably negative, on employers and employees alike.

"This culture of constant connection takes a toll both professionally and personally,"  write Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, and Alexandra Samuel, an expert in online engagement and the author of Work Smarter With Social Media, in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review. "We waste time, attention, and energy on relatively unimportant information and interactions, staying busy but producing little of value."

They cite a report by the nonprofit Information Overload Research Group that finds that knowledge workers in the U.S. waste 25 percent of their time dealing with the incessant stream of data. The loss of a quarter of each employee and employer's day costs the U.S. economy $997 billion every year.

And in a 2009 study, Stanford professor Clifford Nass found that people who juggle multiple streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, control their memory, or manage one job after another compared with people who complete one task at a time.

The bottom-line result of this overstimulation and obsessive checking of email, messages, and social media updates is "reduced productivity and engagement, both in the office and at home," Rosen and Samuel write.

Gloria Mark, a University of California, Irvine, professor in the department of informatics, found that employees typically focus on a task for approximately three minutes before tending to email, social media, or their smartphone. It takes 20 minutes to return to the original task following such a distraction.

But what's behind this rash of inattentiveness? "Some people refer to the overuse of digital devices as an addiction," Rosen writes. "But since most of us don't appear to gain much pleasure from the behavior--a defining feature of addiction--I wouldn't classify it as such." 

A term researchers have found that more accurately describes the need to check one's messages, email, or texts is nomophobia, which is short for "no mobile phone phobia." There's also FOMO (fear of missing out) and FOBO (fear of being offline); all of these are "forms of anxiety that border on obsession or compulsion," Rosen says.

"People are constantly checking their laptops, tablets, and phones because they worry about receiving new information after everyone else, responding too slowly to a text or an email, or being late to comment on or like a social media post," he writes.

Rosen studied this anxiety across different age ranges and found they all check their phones every 15 minutes, or less, on average. In another study, Rosen's colleague Nancy Cheever took 163 students into a lecture hall and asked them to sit and do nothing for an hour--no talking, no work, and no smartphones. "Although light smartphone users showed no change, moderate users experienced initial alarm that leveled off, and those accustomed to checking their phones all day long felt their anxiety spike immediately and continue to increase," Rosen writes.

Samuel says "turning off" is simply not a tenable solution in the digital age. "To illustrate," she writes, "the telecom Tata Communications found that people in the U.S., Europe, and Asia spend more than five hours a day online, and 64 percent have anxiety when they do not have access."

The best advice, Samuel says, is to be practical. You need to "abandon the myth of 'keeping up'--the belief that you will be able to process all your emails, read everything important in the media, and send thoughtful posts to your networks without fail," she writes. You must adopt goals to "sort and limit the information you receive and to streamline the work" required by reading and responding to emails, messages, and social media. You can't do it all, and you'll always be behind. Just try to focus on the things that really matter.

Published on: Jun 18, 2015