Her name is Joanne Cantor and she is a “recovering cyber-addict.”
“I love my work and I’m a pretty industrious person when working on a project,” says Cantor, the director of UW-Madison’s Center for Communication Research and an expert on the psychological impact of media and communications. “But my life was getting so cluttered with all this information that I was never getting anything done. If e-mail came in I felt a need to read it right away. Or I’d go to look up one thing on the Internet, and I’m so curious I’d get distracted and spend time reading all these interesting articles. I figured if I was experiencing some of these problems, others were, too.”
Cantor’s frustration with the distracting nature of digital devices prompted her to write a book on the topic. She didn’t conduct original research, but examined a range of studies by others. “Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress,” explains how the brain can’t work efficiently while multitasking, why information overload can curtail creativity, and how being exposed to both traditional media and modern digital devices adds stress to one’s life.
The book is relatively short — 108 pages, plus an index, glossary and reference citations — and includes plenty of easy-to-follow tips and recommendations for those who are feeling a bit overwhelmed. “It’s short because I figure anybody who needs it doesn’t have time to read a long book,” she says. Self-published under the CyberOutlook Press label, the book sells for $12.95 at cyberoutlookpress.com, amazon.com and University Book Stores.
Cantor, who still spends plenty of time e-mailing, surfing the Internet and toying with her smartphone, says she is proof that making a few changes can improve one’s life. A few years ago, the 64-year-old admits to thinking her memory was starting to fade. “And I’m at that age where your memory does start to go,” she says. “But it was going faster than I wanted it to go and I started thinking this was the beginning of some real decline.”
But when she started limiting her e-mail and Internet use, says Cantor, her “memory started coming back.”
Although Cantor retired from the classroom at UW-Madison in 2000, she still has a passion for teaching. So she started putting together lectures and began speaking to businesses and professional and civic organizations around the country about topics in her field of expertise.
Her first seminar was titled, “This is your mind on media: Staying sane in a crazy culture.”
“It was really me telling people a few things about how the brain works and helping them understand why they are feeling stressed out after watching the news, why you can’t get certain things off your mind and how to regulate media in your life,” says Cantor, who started working at UW-Madison in 1974.
Cantor then began examining the research on multi-tasking and information overload. “And it was a mother lode of incredible information that makes sense of why, even though we have access to all these wonderful gadgets, our brains can’t handle this and why we’re not as productive as we’d like to be,” says Cantor, who developed a second lecture titled, “You’ve got (too much) mail!: Preserving productivity under information overload.”
Cantor says she collected so much information in her research that she decided to write a book and pull it all together. “You can only lecture for so long before people tune out,” says Cantor.
Cantor wrote her book for two main audiences: businesses attempting to deal with digital distractions that impede productivity — think workers surfing the Internet, e-mailing friends or texting on cell phones — and average Joes and Janes who are trying to become more efficient in their everyday lives.
Cantor says there are three key components to understanding and conquering cyber overload. In a chapter titled “Why multitasking is counterproductive,” she writes about the importance of arranging parcels of uninterrupted time each day to focus on tasks which must be completed. She notes studies which indicate multi-tasking isn’t productive, and includes an exercise in the book to prove this point.
Another chapter focuses on information overload and its link to creativity — or lack thereof. “There’s wonderful research on this, and the bottom line is that if you keep concentrating on one problem and never look up, that’s not good,” she says. “Creative breakthroughs happen when you really focus on something for a period of time, then go away from it, and then come back. And there are certain ways of getting away from something — exercise is very good for creativity — that are better than others.”
Cantor adds that traditional media, including radio and TV, also contribute to cyber stress.
“I really think we need time to just get away and think,” says Cantor.
For her that meant turning off the car radio. “When it’s off, you can really let things agitate in your mind. Even now, I often drive to Milwaukee and I don’t have the radio on the whole time. That sounds so extreme, sometimes I don’t even tell people about it.”
The good news, stresses Cantor, is that there are easy ways to take advantage of today’s technology while limiting the side effects.
“Even if you implement just a few suggestions, it can really change your life,” Cantor says.