04/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Zen Remedy For Information Overload

It may not be very popular to admit, but I think if we are honest most of us not only love our increasingly connected life, we also hate it. We do not hate our unprecedented access to information online or the countless ways we can connect with friends, family, and colleagues; instead, we hate that we are not better able to balance the avalanche of information in our lives; we hate the feeling of continuous overwhelm; of always being behind; and of the seemingly endless communication, from emails to private messages, that need replies.

We have clearly entered a new era in communication. Some years ago, we had a cell phone for phone calls, a computer for email and news, and a TV/VCR for watching shows and videos. Today, as long as we have a fairly new cell phone, we can access all these (along with Twitter updates, Facebook status updates, text messages, and much more) almost anywhere we go. As a result, most of us are almost never disconnected. The amount of information we consume in such a life can be both empowering -- and devastating.

Though we will continue to seek quality content with which to fill our mind, to stay sane in this time we also need to know how to empty it. This need is reflected in the following Zen story:

A college professor once went to see a Zen master to learn more about Zen. When the professor met her, he told the Zen master everything he knew about Zen -- all the scriptures he had read, all the knowledge he had, all the facts and figures he knew. He said that he would like her to tell him all of her knowledge so that he could know everything there is to know about Zen. The Zen master responded by asking the professor if he would like some tea. The professor said that he would.

The Zen master filled the professor's cup with tea, and then continued to pour, making the tea overflow onto the table. The professor, watching the Zen master continue to pour tea even though his cup was full, yelled, "Stop! The cup is full. There is no room for more. Why do you keep pouring?"

To which the master responded, "Like this cup, your mind is full. How can I teach you about Zen unless you first empty your cup, empty your mind?"

We too can live with full mental cups, overwhelmed by the information in our lives. Below are some ways to help empty our mind in our technology-rich lives:

1) Do One Thing at a Time

This is challenging, particularly for those of us who tend to work with 7 or 8 browser tabs open at once. As soon as we get bored in one tab, we move to another (actually, you may have already done this a few times while reading this post.) However, according to David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, not only do mistakes go up when we multi-task, but it also takes us longer to complete a task, compared to if we did each task sequentially.

The other choice we have involves putting our full attention on one activity (and yes, reading Twitter or Facebook updates is an activity, so doing that while attending to another task is two, not one, activities). It turns out that we can accomplish more by focusing on one item, such as composing an email, with our full attention than if we continually toggle back and forth between composing the email and reading Twitter or Facebook updates. There is power in our undivided attention.

2) Stay Fresh

The Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi said, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the experts, there are few." Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, spoke to this same quality, when he said, "All the best things I did at Apple came from (a) not having money, and (b) not having done it before, ever. "

These quotes speak to the power of approaching a task with a fresh, open mind. It is not that we need to have never before attempted a task, but it helps to inquire, "Are we taking this on with a clear, fresh mind open to possibilities or with one beaten down by a day of information overload?" The quality of attention in which we embark on a task greatly impacts it. In fact, the most important question is often not, "What are you doing?" but "What is the state of mind behind what you are doing?" For this freshness of mind, it helps to carefully choose the type of content we consume in our day, knowing that some leads to agitation while other information fosters clarity.

3) Begin and End Well

Many of us need to be connected via computer and cell for much of the day, but this need not be how we begin and end a day. When our first question on waking is, "I wonder who sent me an email while I was asleep?" and our last one before bed is, "I wonder if someone sent me an email in the few minutes since I last checked?" our system never really gets a rest.

Therefore, it can help to begin and end our day by making the first hour and last hour with practices that increase wellness and that focus our attention inwardly instead of externally. What one does in this time is up to that person, but many people find yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, or other awareness practices very helpful. Now, if you find yourself thinking, "there is no way I can set that time aside," many people have discovered that this time helps them work with greater focus and effectiveness in the eight to ten hours they are connected and responding to messages. It is time spent that actually saves us time.

Stress 2.0 or Wisdom 2.0?

Most of us are going to live increasingly connected or "2.0" lives with cell phones, emails, and Facebook and Twitter accounts. That is not the question for many of us. The more pertinent question is, "Are we going to live Stress 2.0 or Wisdom 2.0?" We can either use the great technologies of our age or are they can use us. As the old saying goes, "The mind is a great slave, but a horrible master." The same could be said about communications technologies such as cell phones and social networks: they are great tools when we use them; they are horrible masters when they use us.

If we are master or slave in part depends on our ability to not only fill our mind with content, but also to empty it -- to move from asking, "How can I live constantly connected?" to, "How can I live creatively and consciously connected?"


Soren Gordhamer works with individuals and groups on ways to live with less stress and more effectiveness in our technology-rich lives. He is the author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected (HarperOne, 2009). Website: