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Overloaded? You need to embrace social health

We are hyper-connected yet isolated – and this has a serious impact on our productivity, says networking guru Julia Hobsbawm


We’re living in an age of overload. While the pressure to stay competitive and connected is greater than ever, global productivity is falling and continues to confound economists by the rate at which it declines(1).

But this shouldn’t be a surprise. Research shows that overload slows rather than increases productivity(2). There’s clearly a correlation between sluggish growth, productivity and the willingness for corporate leaders to look at wellbeing and other ‘answers’. The data about the impact on productivity as a result of happy, motivated workforces is compelling.

The answer to dwindling productivity is, as I see it, for us to embrace ‘social health’ – knowing who and what to connect with, and when. Where good physical and mental health relies on nutrition, exercise and sleep, social health puts knowledge, networks and time at the centre of what individuals and organisations need in order to function successfully.

The humble bee is, in many ways, the poster species for social health. Bees organise themselves socially and industrially in one of the most efficient manners to be found on Earth. And they get things done. The lesson is clear: boost social health and you boost productivity.

So how can we do it?

1. The diary as a body

I can’t stress enough the significance of the diary and schedule in our personal and professional lives. If you do one thing immediately, do this: look at the patterns in your diary, look at what they mean to you, and identify those patterns that work better. An hour at the beginning or end of the day to manage your inbox, perhaps, or a two- or even three-day period in which to just think (yes!), are all ways of cleansing your palate of the overstuffed commitments that only cause overload, bloat and blockage.

2. Disconnection

You may need the mental equivalent of a fast, of tuning out rather than burning out. Organisations that stay connected, lights on, ever-humming, such as hospitals and government departments, are often the ones that face periodic bouts of catastrophic disconnection. Humans are not personal computers; we need to switch off on a regular basis. To connect one-sixth of the week with ourselves, our family, our community, without the prop, benefit or accompaniment of technology, is essential to surviving and thriving.

3. Diversity of thought

Surround yourself with people who think differently to you, who know different things, who are a different age, or come from a different background. This is not to say that you should invite conflict into your life – argument and belligerence can lead to the opposite of consensus. But be aware of too much like-mindedness, too much groupthink and hivemind.

Read the body language in a room to sense if colleagues are resisting something or have other ideas, and invite them to speak up. Read more widely so you notice the peripheral ideas as well as the mainstream ones. Learn to think in a more diverse way yourself. If you only recruit people with certain qualifications, think again. Create jazz ensemble playing, not formal orchestras.

Julia Hobsbawm

Julia Hobsbawm is the author of Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload


4. Design your honeycomb

Where and how you work could not be more essential. Remember how important it is to be productive, to feel essential, to connect with what you do. If you work somewhere you hate, either because of the job itself, or the location, or the journey, understand that this will impact your performance just as much as being on the wrong diet or having poor motivation in the gym.

Look at the pattern, shape and place of where and how you work. If you work in a really ugly building, or have a hideous commute, notice the way this affects you and design tactics to mitigate this. It could be downloading some great podcasts to listen to or it could be reading The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss and making sure you work productively and flexibly – to the satisfaction of your peers and bosses – elsewhere.

5. Social six

In politics, a cabinet is the very architecture of people and players you surround yourself with – the people you can call on for advice, critical friendship, intelligence and mentoring. The network academic Zella King calls this the ‘personal boardroom’. I would call this having your ‘social six’ – that is, six groups of people you know you are orbiting around in some way. This includes friends, family, colleagues, work friends, people you’ve fallen out of touch with and wish-list people you’d like to get to know better.

Work on establishing, developing and maintaining your social six. Phone someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. Arrange to have coffee to catch up. Keep in motion and progress your relationships rather than let them lie inert on the tracks of an electronic network, disconnected from human hand-eye co-ordination.

6. The knowledge dashboard

We count calories and monitor our five-a-day of fruit and vegetables – why don’t we set similar goals for our knowledge intake? Creating a knowledge dashboard is the answer. Instead of facing all the news as a wall that can come crashing over you at any overwhelming moment, divide the information into six core types to allow you to check a more even spread.

Your dashboard should include elements from all of the following areas: news and views – a general awareness of what’s going on in the world; your specialist subject – a deeper understanding of your own particular field; the zeitgeist – what people are talking about; TV, radio and podcasts – which allow you to ingest information in a different way; long and short reads, from The New Yorker to BuzzFeed – different paces which occupy different bits of headspace; and live events, the face-to-face of information – seeing something live and sharing it.

Having this blend of information, your knowledge dashboard, which at least attempts to organise what the former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld called ‘known unknowns’, makes navigating the age of overload that little bit more manageable. A bit more connected. Maybe even – with a bit of luck – fully connected.


Julia Hobsbawm is the Honorary Visiting Professor of Workplace Social Health at Cass Business School, City, University of London, and author of Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload, which was shortlisted for the CMI Business Book of the Year. She is also editor-at-large for Thrive Global, the media company founded by Arianna Huffington. Visit juliahobsbawm.com


(1) https://www.economist.com/buttonwoods-notebook/2017/01/11/the-curious-case-of-missing-global-productivity-growth

(2) https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/recovering-from-information-overload