Information overload is a major cause of productivity loss, along with related issues such as stress and anxiety. The concept refers to taking in an abundance of information, resulting in difficulty with focus and concentration. It’s a problem many people in developed society face today.
Sources of Information Overload
In today’s digital world, the sources of information overload are practically unending. Prior to the digital age, information used to be controlled by a select few sources. Book, newspaper, and magazine publishers put out our reading material for research and leisure. We received letters from friends through the mail. There were other sources of mail like bills and sales advertisements, as well.
There was also radio and television to contend with. They’ve been there for most of us our whole lives. These sources alone can seem like a battle to wade through, given all of the choices they provide us. Deciding on which show to watch, which broadcast to listen to, and dealing with all of the advertisements added another layer to the information at our disposal.
All of that is compounded in the modern age of electronic media. Today, anyone can be a publisher and can send out that information with immediacy. We’re inundated with emails each day. There is a plethora of news sources to choose from, and we have to be very selective when deciding which we deem credible. Sorting through all of the alternatives can be a tiresome chore in itself.
Then there’s social media. Talk about a deluge of information. There’s Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and more. Along with our friends and followers, there are millions of advertisers and businesses vying for our attention on social media channels through ads and sponsored posts. The flood we’re faced with here is incredible.
What about all the other types of online information we look to for our information and entertainment? Industry forums for work beckon to us, along with blogs written by those we deem experts in other areas of our lives, like hobbyists and parents. Wiki pages can be written by anyone about anything. Head to any search engine to type in any query, and you’ll likely be met with thousands, if not millions, of sources within seconds. It can all be quite maddening.
Consequences of Information
Overload Our brains are wired to be able to process information in specific ways. They can only handle so much input at a time. This fact doesn’t change simply because the amount of available input has significantly increased in recent times. Our brains have not yet adapted to the amount of work we’re asking of them in today’s digital age.
Continuing to expose ourselves to more and more stimulation from competing information sources on a daily basis is bound to lead to negative consequences.
One major consequence of information overload is a decreased attention span. In simplistic terms, your brain lights up in areas that are immediately being used. In the background, it is scanning other areas in case their use is required. When an abundance of information is being sent to your brain at once, numerous areas must light up. This leaves little capacity for focusing attention. Hence, you may find yourself switching from task to task quickly, accomplishing little in the long run.
This frenzied use of your brain and sporadic focus of attention can lead to a number of negative consequences of their own. Loss of productivity occurs when your mind is everywhere and you’re unable to focus. You simply can’t get as much accomplished in the time you would if you were able to harness your brainpower to one thing. Information overload provides too many distractions that take away from your ability to concentrate and perform efficiently.
In addition, lots of negative emotions are related to this issue. When you’re less productive, your self-esteem and sense of worth might take a hit. You’re also likely to fall behind on your work, leading to a sense of heightened urgency. Stress, overwhelm, and mental exhaustion can result.
This inability to focus makes it tempting to follow each new distraction that comes into view. Switching from a work project to check in with social media is a common occurrence, as is answering every email alert you hear. While many can feel wiped out from being on high alert and succumbing to these temptations, others find it exhilarating. Internet or social media addiction is a very real thing in which people find it impossible to put down or walk away from their devices.
Such behavior is detrimental to relationships. No one likes to feel “second” in line to electronic media. If you have a habit of paying attention to online distractions when you’re in the presence of those close to you, this might be a problem you’re experiencing.
Information overload is also harmful to decision making. With so many choices, we feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. We may find it harder and harder to decide on simple things like which item to choose on the fast food menu. Being inundated with data and having so much information at our fingertips can make deciphering the credible sources from the fake much more difficult, as well. Our brains can’t keep up with the input that’s being hurled our way. This is made even trickier when emotions are thrown into the mix, given today’s frenzied political and social climate. We also can’t be expected to remember all of the buzz we’re constantly being bombarded with. The onslaught of material we face each and every day, everywhere we go, causes poor information retention. It’s simply too much to hold onto for long
periods of time. Our brains can’t retain it. Therefore, it should be no surprise to learn that memory loss is another problem associated with this phenomenon.
Due to a combination of all the above consequences, we’re often left feeling depressed, anxious, stressed, and overwhelmed. Along with the toll that information takes on our brain function and productivity, our mental health ultimately suffers, too. How can we be expected to feel less than frazzled and unwell when we’re dealing with such difficulties as those mentioned in this chapter and more?
The good news is that there are strategies available to help you cope. You don’t have to sit back and be a passive victim to the overwhelming information availability today. In fact, it’s important to remember that having so much knowledge at your fingertips can be a good thing once you learn how to harness it. That’s what we’ll be talking about next.
How to Cope with Information Overload
There are actually lots of different ways to handle this information overload throughout various aspects of your life. It doesn’t have to overwhelm you and zap your productivity once you learn a few tips and discover some resources to wrangle it all. Technology and its ease of information dissemination is a good thing. The key is to understanding how to manage it all to your advantage.
When it comes to dealing with all of the information, media, messaging, choices, and distractions that come your way, the overarching theme must be to filter it all. Creating filters involves making strong decisions and setting priorities regarding what information you allow in, when you allow it, and how much of it is permitted. As you can see, the positive thing about creating filters is that you are in charge. Keep this proactive attitude in mind as we cover the following tips.
The first tip I want to share is to place self-imposed limits on your media use. Whether it’s email, social media, television, texting, or even paper sources like magazines, it’s important to limit the use of anything that takes up a significant portion of your time. Only you know what your biggest time-sucks are. Start with those first and set limits for the number of times you’ll attend to them or the total amount of time you’ll allow yourself to spend with them each day.
You will probably need to employ some trial and error strategies in order to find a limit that works for you. Sometimes we’re tempted to overestimate what we’re capable of handling, while other times we may fall into the trap of placing limits that are too easy and don’t impose much of a challenge.
Decide how many times you’ll allow yourself to check your email, visit social media, or mindlessly surf the web each day. Then stick to it, spending the rest of your time doing productive tasks. If other issues are your primary source of time-wasting, be sure to address those. Perhaps you’re a fiction addict, so you’ll need to limit your reading time. Maybe TV is your downfall. Whatever it is – set limits.
Once you start to take charge of your time in this way, you’ll find you have more motivation to keep going. If your will is weak at first, you can find some technology in the form of apps or software that might help you. There are apps that will limit your use of certain websites or email programs. You can set a time limit, and the sites will be inaccessible to you. There are also apps and programs that can help you streamline tasks automatically, such as filtering your email or automating your digital tasks.
A great deal of information in paper form is delivered to you through the U.S. Post Service or through memos at work. You can cut down on the junk mail you receive by contacting the Direct Marketing Association to have yourself removed from direct mail lists. When it comes to data overload at work, talk to your colleagues and inform them of your preferred communication methods. If you’d rather get emails instead of paper memos, spread the word. Not all departments may be able to honor your request, but it’s worth a try in order to be able to better keep up with the correspondence you receive.
Finally, set aside some quiet time each day to simply unwind away from all of the information that surrounds you. This unplugged time can be spent doing anything you enjoy, as long as it’s quiet. Go for a walk outside in nature. Curl up on the couch with a cup of tea and your thoughts. Doing so will have a restorative effect to help you reset your senses.
Taking these steps will provide you with a more satisfactory experience when it comes to the information you encounter. You’ll feel calmer and more in control, allowing you to strategically manage the types of data and messages you receive. Information and knowledge are wonderful things when you take a proactive approach to the ways in which you choose to engage with them.