Grappling with Information Overload
Welcome to a new feature that I am going to publish throughout the month, replicating the idea, but not the format, of my earlier monthly essays I used to write. My “Random Brain Bits” will indeed often be more random and likely more frequent, as I look to comment on things that I’ve been thinking about but that don’t fit into any specific category.
Too Much Information = Information Overload
There’s so much going in the world at any given moment, it seems impossible for any one person to keep up with it all. Talk to your friends or coworkers and you’ll often hear a common thread — there’s so much to do online, I often feel overwhelmed. Lost. “I get on to look for one thing, and get off 2 hours later completely forgetting to even look for the thing I got online originally for!”
Information overload is the state of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information available to us at any given moment, and not having the tools, skills, or capabilities to keep it organized in a reasonable manner. In more extreme cases, people can become depressed by the stress and anxiety information overload brings. While it existed before the Internet become commonplace in the 1990’s, it was far more rare. Today, more and more people are complaining about just feeling plain overwhelmed by the Internet.
So that’s fine for you and I, living our everyday lives. But what if you’re entrusted with the lives of others?
In fact, the entire practice of medicine today rests on this fallacy — that a single doctor, like your general physician, could realistically keep up with the amount of changing medical knowledge that occurs each month. Trust me, doctors try. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult. In fact, it’s been impossible for decades now, it’s just that nobody’s bothered to tell doctors. Some (many?) have realized this on their own, but many toil away believing they (a) should be able to keep up with current medical knowledge and (b) are capable of doing so.
5 Tips To Help With Information Overload
There are a number of things you can do to reduce the feelings of stress and anxiety associated with trying to organize and keep track of too much information all at once.
1. Reduce your information intake. Yes, I know this sounds paradoxical, since we’re constantly inundated with the supposed “need” to keep consuming more and more information. But the truth is that you probably don’t need a great deal of the information you’re taking in, because you’re randomly choosing some bits here and there. The Internet reinforces this way of consuming information and learning, but while satisfying our curiosities, it’s not a very good way to systematically learn and retain information on a particular subject.
2. Consume information more systematically instead of randomly. If you focus on what you need rather than what others think you want, you may be surprised at how much you can cut out of your online time. For instance, if you’re looking for reviews on a cell phone, don’t get bogged down in off-topic threads in a forum that have nothing to do with the cell phone in question. If you want the answer to a scientific question, write down possible keywords, Google them, stay on topic. Bookmark things that are “off-topic” from the original search for later investigation (during your “entertainment” time, below).
3. Divide entertainment time online from work time. Many people who suffer from “information overload” do so because they have blurred “working” online from “having fun” online, and have given up the distinctions between the two. You can see this in many office workers who are given free online reign, as they mix shopping for a birthday present with finishing the weekly reports. Most people, however, are not great multitaskers and don’t readily switch gears as quickly as one can switch web pages. Blurring this line means that neither is very effective — a person will take much longer getting their work done, and may have less fun on the flip side.
4. Set time limits. Information overload sometimes is reinforced by not setting limits on the amount of time we allow information to be taken in by our brains. If we are open to information 24 hours a day, we give our brains no time to relax, to change modes, to have fun. Just as we can’t switch gears as easily as most people think we can, we also shouldn’t be “always on-call” for new information in any moment or situation. For instance, I know people who don’t turn off their cell phones during family events or going to see a show. They believe that information is more important than relaxing or spending some time with loved ones. The truth is, information will always be there. Unless you’re the President of the United States (or his equivalent elsewhere), you have no need to be on 24 hours a day.
5. Chunk your information. Being a consumer of information means becoming better at learning how to consume that information more intelligently. If you take in every bit of information with equal weight, it becomes harder to sort, harder to keep track of. Psychologists call this “chunking,” and it just means putting information into groups to better organize it. In the U.S., we group our telephone numbers into 3 groups — a 3 digit area code, a 3 digit prefix, and a 4 digit suffix. This method for remembering a phone numbers divides a long 10 digit number into 3 more easily managed “chunks” of information that our brain has a better time storing for long-term use. You can use the same method for keeping track of any new information from anywhere — online, remembering people’s names when introduced, you name it. Organize it into smaller, more easily managed chunks, and you’ll find it’ll stick longer.
None of This Will Stop Information Flow
These suggestions won’t stop the (over)flow of information from coming into our lives — only we can do that. With phones becoming multi-use online devices, we will never be “out of touch” with the world. But honestly, as human beings, we all need to be out of touch sometimes. Offline, off the grid, whatever you want to call it, but disconnecting from the information flow — whether it be checking your email, surfing the web, gaming, whatever — is a conscious choice each and every one of us must make regularly in our lives. At least once a week.
Grohol, J. (2006). Grappling with Information Overload. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 18, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2006/12/08/grappling-with-information-overload/