How to Break the Illusion of Urgency

Every time we find ourselves compulsively checking the media, we are exposing ourselves to more and more information. Feeling like we 'need to know' what is going on around us can become an addiction and distract us when we feel bored, restless, or anxious.

In recent years we have become bombarded with multimedia messaging. From the moment we get woken by our radio alarm clocks, pick up the newspaper, turn on breakfast television, or glance at our phones in the morning our brain starts uploading and processing new information.

The alerts we receive are designed to be attention grabbing and create an illusion of urgency, whether it is a 'breaking news' broadcast, a time-sensitive status update, or the announcement of a sale that 'ends today!'.

Every time we find ourselves compulsively checking the media, we are exposing ourselves to more and more information. Feeling like we 'need to know' what is going on around us can become an addiction and distract us when we feel bored, restless, or anxious. Like a nosey neighbour constantly peering out the window to see what Mr Jones is up to, we can feel compelled to stay on top of our e-mail and the latest news feeds, whether political, health, sports, or general social networks.

This behaviour can lead to an information overload, which clogs our cognitive processing capacity and limits our ability to make decisions.(*1)It can also rupture our relationships, because it breaks the flow of conversations and diverts us from enjoying quality time with each other.

A study conducted by Nielsen Co. in 2012(*2) found that 67% of Americans watch television while eating dinner. Technology company Techcrunch carried out a study(*3) the same year, which found that 38% of Americans check e-mail whilst eating their evening meal.

Figures for the UK are similar. According to the December 2010 TV Licensing's TeleScope report(*4) 72% of us eat a main meal in front of the television (although this figure is slightly lower at 59% for those with children). With regard to checking emails, a 2012 study by Good(*5) revealed that 29% of Brits scan their inbox during dinner.

When I was young, meal times were 'family time' and my mother would always urge us to switch the television off and communicate with each other. I believe she taught my brothers and me something very valuable in encouraging us to do that. It is a practice I continue to this day.

In the twelve years that my husband and I have been together we have made an effort, whenever possible, to sit down each evening without distractions of phones, computers, or the television when we eat. I believe it to be one of the keys to a happy marriage and for raising contented children.

In the spring of 2013 I was invited to appear on a UK current affairs chat show broadcast on SKY TV called the Chrissy B Show.(*6) After the show I was intrigued to learn that the presenter, Christoulla Boodram, completed a 21-day media fast in order to help her become more aware of how television, web surfing and social media robbed her of her ability to concentrate on more important things. Recounting her experience of fasting in this way, Boodram said:

I didn't watch television for three weeks. I wasn't tweeting or searching online for things, unless it was work related. I noticed how many things had previously been taking away my attention. It helped me to reflect on myself and look deep inside.

How does multimedia messaging currently consume your attention?

Although it is difficult to avoid big advertising billboards in the street or radio in the shops, it is possible to make a conscious choice to cut down on the amount of media that you expose yourself to.

Do you find yourself checking your phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night?

What could you do to help break the addiction?

Switching off your Smartphone at meal times is a good place to start. Also consider a cut off time in the evening at least an hour before you go to bed to help you disconnect from your day and unwind ready for a good night's rest. Rather than taking your phone to bed with you, buy a silent alarm clock for your bedroom and leave your mobile in another room until the morning.

In a 2011 study conducted by Ofcom6 the vast majority of Smartphone users (81%) admitted to having their mobiles switched on all of the time, even when they were in bed. Not only does this mean an increased temptation to check for news updates, email, and social media status before attempting to go to sleep, making it extremely difficult for the mind to switch off from thinking, but you are more likely to get disturbed during the night too. The same Ofcom survey found that 38% of Smartphone users get woken by their phone whilst sleeping and respond to incoming calls, texts, and other messages, rather than turning their device off.

What are some of the other daily habits you could change?

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You may find it helpful to have a conversation with your partner and/or children and get them on board, too, so that you can encourage each other to become less dependent on needing to know what is going on in the world 24/7 and more dedicated to knowing what is going on with each other. You can also find more ideas on this in my best-selling book 'Burnout to Brilliance: Strategies for Sustainable Success'.

1Speier, Cheri; Valacich, Joseph. Vessey, Iris (1999). "The Influence of Task Interruption on Individual Decision Making: An Information Overload Perspective". Decision Sciences 30.


3Sarah Perez, Techcrunch, 2nd July, 2012,