What a time we live in; there are so many choices. We are experiencing freedom unlike any other in history, where we can pick exactly what we want and when we want it. But, too much choice can be overwhelming, and we’ve known this for almost two decades.
In 2000, psychologists Sheen Iyengar and Mark Lepper published their groundbreaking study, When Choice Is Demotivating, where they studied consumer reactions to being offered a large variety of jams in contrast to a smaller display. While the big selection attracted more interest, consumers ended up buying from the offering of fewer choices.
While it might seem counterintuitive, people are better at making decisions when there are fewer options to choose from. Having too much information can hinder you when making critical decisions. This phenomenon goes by many names, infobesity, infoxication, information anxiety and information explosion. But let’s just call it plainly what it is: information overload.
What Is Information Overload?
Information overload is the problematic process of trying to understand something and make the right decision when we have too much information about what we’re trying to decide. The term stems from a book, The Managing of Organizations, written by social scientist Bertram Gross and published in 1964. But it more likely became part of the public vernacular with the publication of the bestselling Future Shock by Alvin and Heidi Toffler in 1970.
The Tofflers defined information overload as occurring “when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision-makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.”
Let’s put it in more colorful terms: remember those old sci-fi movies where a person overcomes the tyranny of some diabolically authoritarian computer by posing an illogical question? Smoke billows from its burnt-out circuitry as it struggles to calculate the incalculable. We aren’t computers, but we can blow our own version of gaskets when we’re overloaded with too much data. It gums up the machinery and our brains stall as our eyes roll back in our heads, overcome by choice.
Dangers of Information Overload
Even if it didn’t have a name, information overload has been around as long as people have gathered information. It spikes with advances in technology, such as in the Renaissance when writings were preserved by copying ancient texts. But it stems even further back to the Bible, where it’s referred to in the book of Ecclesiastes 12:12, where it’s said, “Of making books there is no end.”
A study by the Pew Research Center noted that 20 percent feel overloaded with information, which creates tension, especially if a job has high information demands for its employees. But it’s not only stress at work that manifests; information overload can be diagnosed through many symptoms.
You’ve heard the expression “brain fog”? A brain is an amazing tool, one that we’ve only tapped in terms of its potential, but even it has its limits. We often exceed what our brains can process and in so doing reach something called cognitive overload, which means we hit a mental wall that leads to irritability and poor thinking.
This inherently is going to reduce one’s ability to make good decisions, making us more prone to logical fallacies. Our minds get tired and making a decision takes energy, which is exhausted in the process of gathering data. This impacts not only your decision-making, but your productivity and ability to stay motivated as well. Does that make you feel anxious? Well, that’s another symptom of information overload.
How to Avoid Information Overload
We live in an information-saturated age and at times it might feel impossible to avoid. Most don’t have the luxury to go off the grid or join a monastery. But that doesn’t mean one should throw up their hands, give up and jump in the endless stream of data to drown in bits and bytes.
The Buddhists speak of a middle path, which is just moderation. It’s a sober way to approach information, where sobriety means restraint rather than abstinence. The idea that one can avoid information is ridiculous and not practical. But there are ways not to overindulge. Here are just seven—we don’t want to overwhelm you.
Most of us spend our work life online to some capacity or digest large swaths of data. Then we come home and suck up more information, falling into a black hole of the internet or social media.
Do your brain a favor and get off the computer for a few hours every day, and make sure to disable those annoying notifications. Just take time to do nothing. Be lazy. Even avoid newspapers or books. There are mindfulness practices if you need some guidance, but just sitting and being unjudgementally present with your thoughts and feelings as they come and go can be very therapeutic. It gives your mind a chance to reboot and charge its mental batteries.
2. Manage Your Information
Unplugging might not be an option at work, so you’re going to have to take another approach. There’s an onslaught of information at work but that doesn’t mean you have to respond to it immediately when it lands in your inbox.
Be more selective and prioritize your information. When you get an email, most likely you can tell from the subject line whether it needs a quick response or if you can put it aside for a while. Then have a dedicated period during the day in which you can go through your correspondences. Don’t forget a spam filter to keep the volume to a reasonable flood. These are key techniques and tools for email management.
3. Get Everyone Involved
There’s only so much you can do on your own in an office. While it’s important to control the information that crosses your desk, there is also more collective data that is beyond your power. You must develop a unified front, and deploy operational excellence, to defeat this invader.
That means creating an information strategy at work. Get buy-in from coworkers, who should be open to any excuse to reduce the exchange of unnecessary information. That could mean keeping paperwork to a minimum and only when essential and keeping meetings on point by having a defined and specific agenda. Of course, upgrading your project management software can help reduce unnecessary steps as well.
4. Keep It Simple
Information is redundant if it’s duplicated. You don’t need a carbon copy of everything, and you certainly don’t want to get the same notice over and over again. Therefore, do your best to make sure people know how to reach you, so they don’t inundate every channel that can get to you in order to make sure you get their note.
That means, be explicit about whether you prefer email, text or some other form of communication. If they need confirmation, let them tell you so you can respond, rather than having them call you to make sure you’ve received their missive. It’s remarkable how much information a person gets that just says the same thing on a different platform. (If you’re running a project, this is where a project communication plan can help clarify how the information will be distributed.)
5. Clear Your Mind
Think of it as housework. If you don’t sweep periodically, you’ll have a menagerie of dust bunnies. If you don’t clear your head, the important information will have a harder time clearing the hurdles of all that mental debris. Therefore, a regular “brain dump” is a great way to reset your head and keep that pesky information overload at bay.
One way to do this is the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. Write down every thought that is interrupting your work. It’s odd, but once they’re on paper, they’re out of your head. In a sense, it allows your brain to focus on other things because you’ve stored information that was blocking it on a paper, the original external hard drive.
6. Set Limits
There’s something called the two-minute rule, which means spending only two minutes on a task. This is essentially giving yourself limits. One problem with information is that today there is always more and it’s easily accessible. From respected sources to anecdotal references, expert advice and commentary to opinions and rants, there’s no end to any subject.
But you can put an end to that with this time management strategy. Give yourself boundaries, which citations are valuable, and which are not? Also, how much time is worth the question and when does that time become an impediment to making a decision? Focus on the subject at hand, don’t multitask, but give the question the time it deserves and then pull the trigger on the decision.
7. Prepare for the Next Day
Well, you got through one day without information overload, now it’s time to set up the next to be as successful. This should be a daily practice, best to do it before you leave work if you’re thinking about the office, or before you go to bed if the target is more personal. This focus is a disciplined way to keep information overload under control.
One way to do this is by listing the top few tasks you have to tackle the next day. Prioritize them in a list to collect your thoughts about the coming day, which will also help you not waste time or energy on overthinking the work or being unable to manage it because it’s fast becoming due and breathing down your neck.
Was that too much information to take in? Hopefully, it’ll prove helpful and make your head clear to handle the day’s work. Once you’ve got the right mindset, then it’s time to equip yourself with the right tools. ProjectManager is a cloud-based project management software that facilitates workflow with kanban boards, task lists and a collaborative platform. Manage your information better with ProjectManager by taking this free 30-day trial today.