Digital Exhaustion And What To Do About It

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It’s the end of a long day, you’ve done a bunch of Zoom and Teams video meetings, popped in and out of Slack, spent a while digging through the company Knowledge Base, tried to manage the emails, your phone’s been going off with text messages, you’ve dipped your toes into the Twitter stream, dropped into TikTok for a quick chuckle on a break, watched a YouTube video over lunch. The end of the workday comes and you’re exhausted. We’ve tended, through the pandemic, to call this “zoom fatigue” and while it’s real, it’s not the main reason you’re so tired.

I call it Digital Exhaustion. Knowledge workers, those who spend most days in front of computers, are most susceptible to this. It has to do with your brains and how we pay attention to our physical and digital worlds. Depending on the circumstances, we pay attention primarily in two ways. We pay attention to what is going on around us, be it at work, home, driving, cycling, hiking and this is called spatial attention. Then we pay attention to things as they happen, this is temporal attention. Under the temporal category are lots of subcategories. When you’re in a meeting or group and you’re focusing on the person you’re speaking with, this is selective attention as you tune out the background noise. Sustained attention is when you need to focus, perhaps writing a report or plan and you prefer a more quiet ambience. Then we have alternating or divided attention, such as when you’re moving back and forth between different apps while working.

Technology mostly places demand on our temporal attention, although with the growth in Augmented Reality applications, this may impact spatial and temporal at the same time. How we will adapt to that we don’t know yet. Some will do better than others.

Scientists estimate our brains hold about a petabyte of information, or about 11,000 movies in 4K that would take you 2.5 years watching non-stop to get through. hey, pandemic…and our brains are incredibly more powerful than even the world’s top supercomputer. Scientists have calculated that one second of brain activity involves 1.73 billion nerve cells all firing at tghe same time on 10.4 trillion synapses.

All this to say, that as powerful as our brains are, sometimes they need a quick reset. Kind of like when you need to clear the cache in your browser when it gets bogged down or free up some RAM for an application to run smoother. In your brain, this is called an attentional blink. It’s about half a second long, you may or may not notice it. Our brains do have limits. So our brain rations our attention. When we’re good, we can flip between devices and apps, but sometimes, such as at the end of the day, your brain is simply exhausted from being on constant alert and managing your attention. Technology is designed to get our attention, especially software.

And then there’s zoom fatigue, which is because our brains aren’t used to seeing oursleves so much. Nor is it familiar with seeing multiple other people at the same time on a screen and trying to interact. It’s hard to read subtle body language, which is important for our brains to understand context in order to make responses.

So at the end of the day, you’ve got attentional exhaustion in your brain and zoom fatigue. Or it can even hit you mid-day. Some days will be worse than others depending on your cognitive workload, or what I call, cognitive drain. You’ve spent a day processing information.

So what can you do? Take attention breaks during the day, giving your mind time to reset and process information. Take a walk or a quick run. Exercise is good as we know, but it also gives your brain a spatial attention workout. Try and avoid back to back video meetings if you can. Read a magazine (print, not digital) or print book. Cook a meal. Take a break from temporal attention demands in the digital world.

Our brains are still adapting to the increased amount of time we spend in the digital world. Perhaps over time, our brains will become less spatial attention focused and more temporal.



Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious