You’re probably familiar with the term “information overload.” If you’re not, you’re probably all-too familiar with what it describes. Therapist Melody Wilding, LMSW, defined information overload as the unease you feel when you have multiple tabs open on your computer — except the tabs are in your head. You feel frantic. Your attention is fractured. You have “one foot in and one foot out,” she said.
“Information overload describes the difficulty a person may have making decisions or thinking clearly because there is just too much information to be processed,” said Marsha Egan, CSP, PCC, CEO of The Egan Group Inc., and author of Inbox Detox and the Habit of Email Excellence.
She likened it to a form of mental clutter. When your desk is cluttered, it’s hard to make choices about what to work on right now. It’s hard to work at all. The same happens when there’s a mess of data: It can become paralyzing.
With access to limitless information, “you can create your own echo chamber of self-reinforcing information,” Wilding said. For instance, you look up the symptom “cough,” and cancer comes up. The more you research, the deeper you go down the rabbit hole of how your cough is cancer.
In general, trying to attend to so much is tiring. At the end of the day, you might realize that you’re exhausted, but you haven’t accomplished anything meaningful, Wilding said. Instead you’ve sat in a lot of meetings, returned a lot of email and made a lot of phone calls. In other words, all your tasks have been responses, and you “become stuck in the cycle of just doing shallow activities,” she said. “This can spiral into a burnout.”
It also can affect our creativity. Because we’re on the defensive, responding to tasks and data coming at us, we spend less time coming up with our own ideas. Instead of creating, we consume.
Information overload can affect our ability to go deeper, which affects our entire lives, said Wilding, who teaches Rewire, a program designed to help people build healthier habits and a healthier relationship with technology. We might find that we’re unable to sit down to read an entire chapter of a book or write our own chapter. We might find we can’t listen to our spouses — or we can’t remember a thing they said.
But this doesn’t mean we’re powerless and doomed. Rather, there’s a lot you can do. The key is to be aware, intentional and proactive. Below are six tips to try.
Be aware of what’s happening.
“In order to overcome information overload, you have to realize the game being played around you,” Wilding said. That is, today’s world is set up to capture our attention at all times. Think about the way Facebook works or any blog that has an infinite scroll. “All of these tools are designed to keep you on them.”
Practice “just-in-time learning.”
With plenty of information at our fingertips, we can easily over-research topics we don’t even need to know right now. Wilding sees this often with business owners. They want to jump to working on their website and doing webinars online. “But they don’t have their first client yet or they don’t know what they want to sell.” Or you’re trying to start meditating, and you begin picking out retreats to attend and exploring how to create a meditation room in your home — before you’ve even meditated for a few minutes.
In other words, instead of trying to learn all of Excel, focus on the one thing you need to know for the next 6 months.
Find tools to help you disconnect.
For instance, Wilding uses Inbox Pause for Gmail, which helps her to mentally and literally disconnect from email at night. The program pauses your email, preventing any new email from coming in. This helps to “extinguish” the reward you get when you check your inbox and receive new email. And over time, without the reward, you’ll stop compulsively checking your email — and letting your attention get hijacked.
Know your priorities.
“When you know you are working on what is truly important, your stress about getting other things done becomes minimized,” said Egan. You’re less vulnerable to distractions and device-checking.
What are your longer term personal goals? What are your professional goals? What are your values? In other words, when you get intentional about what matters to you, it’s easier to say no to the tasks that don’t.
Create a hard stop for consuming.
Wilding encourages her clients and students to set “implementation periods.” Let’s say you want to become a better cook. You give yourself 2 weeks to research recipes and buy your ingredients. Then you use your third week to actually cook and create — to implement what you’ve learned. Or you spend a week reading all about book proposals, how to write one, examples of proposals. The second week, you focus on writing your proposal, without researching anything.
Realize your intentions around your devices.
“We look to our devices and information overload for emotional repair,” Wilding said. For instance, we’re standing in a long line and getting frustrated. We turn to our phones to calm down, to essentially self-soothe. “We displace our discomfort onto our devices.”
That’s why Wilding suggested checking in with ourselves when we’re reaching for our devices. Ask yourself: “What do I need here? Am I feeling lonely? Bored? Upset? What is my intention for doing this?” For instance, when you check your email, you might say your intention is to reply to a certain person or to spend 20 minutes catching up. After that you move on to your meaningful project.
Information overload is all around us. And it’s all-too easy to let it envelope us. But by being thoughtful and deliberate and knowing what’s most vital to us, we can be creators, instead of constant consumers, reacting and letting our days, energy and brains get hijacked.