Information: there’s a lot of it about. In his new book The Organised Mind, psychologist Daniel Levitin notes that we consume five times as much as we did in 1986. He also puts it like this: if you took one person’s share of all the human-created information in the world, wrote each byte of it on an index card and spread them out, you’d blanket Massachusetts and Connecticut. (Don’t actually do this – you’d cause chaos.) But then he drops his bombshell: we’re not really suffering from “information overload” at all. Your brain is incredible at storing data; some neuroscientists believe almost everything you’ve ever experienced is in there somewhere. Which is a relief. I don’t need to worry that my ability to recall the lyrics to Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in their entirety means I’m using up space needed for something else.
If you're feeling overstretched, at work or at home, let me make a suggestion: you need more inboxes in your life. I'm aware that this may strike you as the delusional ramblings of (to use the neuroscientific term) a wrong 'un. Isn't your existing inbox already overstuffed with emails? Who needs more of that? But I mean it. I've felt this way ever since installing Evernote, an app that's been called an "everything bucket", into which I fling all manner of electronic clutter: articles to read later, thoughts jotted down in text files, photos I take on my phone. These all accumulate in my Evernote inbox. Then, once or twice a week, I spend half an hour clearing it out: filing things, reading others, deleting rubbish. If this sounds like pointless bother, let me blow your mind: your life's already full of inboxes. You just don't realise it yet. And it can be surprisingly liberating once you do.
A friend of mine I'll call Nick (since that's his name) sporadically sends me postcards from his travels around the globe, on which the entire message, scrawled in large ballpoint letters, is "Best wishes, Nick." One interpretation of this is that Nick's a lazy bastard. Another is that he doesn't value our friendship sufficiently to spend five minutes telling me his news. But knowing how often I think about an absent friend, yet take no action to make contact, I'm inclined to conclude that his tactic's ingenious. The crucial thing about a postcard from afar, after all, is the fact of it, not some anecdote about haggling over souvenirs in a bazaar. By studiously ignoring the convention that postcards should contain news, he ensures they actually get sent. The difference between a detailed message and "Best wishes" is far smaller than between a postcard and no postcard at all.
Until recently, I owned a mobile phone so chunky and ridiculous that people had started to laugh at it – including, memorably, the staff at the shop where I'd originally bought it. (In their defence, I'd had it since 2007, which is the Mesolithic period in phone years.) But if there's one thing psychology has taught us, it's that buying shiny gadgets is a guaranteed path to fulfilment, so I'm now the proud owner of a Nexus 4, a sleek, blemish-free slab of glass, 9mm thick. Well, I say "proud owner". "Proud but with a background hum of anxiety" is more like it. Because it is, after all, a blemish-free slab of glass – which means I can never quite forget the risk of dropping or scratching it.
I've written fairly frequently in the past about managing email and the psychology of information overload, and I try not to be too strident or hectoring when I do; after all, different approaches work for different people. But from time to time, I run into people who point out, quite reasonably, that they're not tragic and pitiful productivity geeks like me; on the contrary, they actually have lives, and they just want to be told what steps to follow in order to triumph over their stress-inducing inboxes, so they can get on with more important matters. And so, despite being sceptical about New Year's resolutions in general, let me seize the calendrical opportunity to tell you – tell you, not suggest to you – how to head into 2013 feeling as odiously smug about your inbox as I do about mine, which, at time of writing, contains five emails. Here's what you need to do. And no back-talk!
A few months back, a friend – a freelance journalist I'll call Ethan – pitched some ideas to an editor at a magazine. When he got no response, he sent a polite email, which elicited an apology. Oh, God, I'm sorry, said the editor (I'm paraphrasing; not all editors are this polite), but things are just so busy here! Weeks passed; Ethan sent another reminder, and got another apology: I'll get to them soon! If this humdrum exchange had happened in 1992, Ethan would probably have let it pass, picturing the editor late at his desk, gobbling pizza, surrounded by stacks of letters and articles, calling his sad-faced children to say goodnight from the office for the fourth night running. But it was 2012, and there was a problem: the whole time he'd been pleading overwork, the editor had been visibly active, day after day, on Twitter. He didn't have time to respond to Ethan's ideas. But that video about the guy who turned his dead cat into a helicopter? That was another matter.
To see the future of the "happiness industry", head to California: if there's a way to charge money for a service that promises to make life better, some Californian will have figured it out. In certain jails there, nonviolent offenders can pay around $100 a day for an upgrade to a nicer cell, further from violent inmates, and sometimes with the right to use a laptop. Californian life-coaches abound, obviously, while new agers congregate at the world-famous Esalen centre, in Big Sur, to study craniosacral therapy and shamanism. And, as the (California-based) sociologist Arlie Hochschild discovered, in California you can consult a "wantologist" who, for a fee, will help discover what the Want-ology™ self-help system refers to as your "soul wants". Increasingly, Hochschild argues, we are "outsourcing intimate parts of our lives". If you want to – in the US, anyhow – you can now rent a friend, rent a grandma, or pay someone to visit a deceased relative's grave.
In the midst of last week's hoopla over the launch of the Kindle Fire, Reuters social media editor Anthony de Rosa tweeted:
The beauty of the Amazon Kindle is that I am not a click away from other distractions, that all changes with Fire.
I couldn't agree more. I love my Kindle with a troubling intensity, but the reason I love it is that it helps me focus my attention, instead of dissipating it.
Like the war on terror — though I don't have high hopes for this analogy making it beyond the opening sentence of today's column — the war on email is now about a decade old. Recently, I've noticed a hard-headedness creeping in: gone are the ingenious tricks for staying on top of it all, replaced by the frank acknowledgment that sometimes you can't. The website five.sentenc.es, for example, urges you to announce "a personal policy that all email responses... will be five sentences or less", and earlier this year Chris Anderson, organiser of the TED conferences, proposed several new rules for email, including the use of "NNTR" — "no need to respond" — as an act of generosity towards overburdened recipients. These are welcome developments, since the curse of most productivity advice is the assumption that, given the right techniques, you can fit it all in, when to be honest, who knows? But my unscientific surveys of email-deluged friends suggest this isn't the whole story. On the rare occasions I'm permitted to inspect these bursting inboxes, one thing’s clear: half of what's in them shouldn't be there at all.