Tomasz Banas

A Practical Guide to Information Overload

In today’s era of technology, allowing for instant, at-our-fingertips information production and delivery, our senses are constantly being preoccupied and bombarded with information. We think, see and hear it continually and in great quantities. In fact, we frequently can’t even focus on or complete a single assignment, whether in a private or professional setting, without information-related interruptions and distractions that we create ourselves or are exposed to. So, we may often wonder how to handle information overload (IO) to filter it and use successfully to our own or our company’s advantage.

To find out, let’s explore various aspects of IO, shall we?

IO’s Meaning

According to Digital Intelligence Today, IO happens “when the volume of potentially useful and relevant information available exceeds processing capacity and becomes a hindrance rather than a help.” In other words, it occurs when we simply receive too much information to take in. Someone experienced in data analysis and filtering may know how to prioritize this content and ignore irrelevant noise. But, many of us - the inexperienced information users - may be lost in it and unable to interpret or use huge amounts of data thrown at us.

Interesting Statistics About IO

The quantity of information we process nowadays is startling, and the extent of losses we experience due to the overflow is worrisome. The following facts and numbers speak for themselves:

  • Today’s world has produced 90 percent of the data only in the last two years.
  • Each month, an average Internet user sees 1,707 banner ads.
  • Between 2007 and 2011, digital and paper enterprise information grew by 67 percent annually.
  • A typical US citizen consumes 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes of information each day.
  • A 500-employee company could save $2 million yearly by cutting 15 percent of time devoted to handling IO.
  • At some time in their work, 94 percent of knowledge workers felt overwhelmed by information to the point of powerlessness.
  • Organizations spend 25 percent of their time to manage IO.
  • A human brain can handle only seven, plus or minus two, pieces of information at one time.

“There was 5 exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days.”

Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO tweet this quote

Major IO Causes

Information comes in many forms. It may be electronic (e-mails, text messages, or website content), audio (phone calls, conversations, or radio), visual (advertisements, television, or face-to-face conversations), and written (letters, magazines, or newspapers). Wherever we go, whoever we meet, whatever we do, and however we do it, we’re surrounded by information creation, consumption and exchange.

The reasons for IO are pretty vast, just as enormous as the information pool itself. Nowadays, not only data production and diversity are increasing, but the Internet and the growth in communication channel availability - such as instant messaging, mobile devices, social media, or web feeds – make it super easy to distribute all this information. As Xerox Corporation points out, data variety, people’s information-handling techniques, information technology’s (IT) evolution, and organizations’ reaction speeds all contribute to IO. In addition, some of the data we encounter is inaccurate, incomparable or contradictory, and, unfortunately, we’re still exposed to it. Consequently, a mixture of the above may create a lot of overwhelming, unprocessed and unnecessary noise for us and our companies.

Main Consequences of IO

The technology-driven information access and flow, with the Internet as a leader, can be a double-edged sword. Yes, it brings benefits, such as worldwide communication and trade-opening pathways, but it overflows our minds because we can’t process it all at once. Here’s how IO impacts our personal and professional environment and performance:

Continuous Partial Attention (CPA)

When dealing with various sources of incoming information, we simply can’t focus on all of them equally. That’s when CPA, a term invented by Linda Stone, occurs. According to Stone, CPA allows us to pay continuous attention to multiple aspects but only on a superficial level. She claims that many of us operate this way nowadays because we all want to be connected and informed, always. So, we only skim through information, without adequate time to understand contexts of data we try to handle. Clearly, CPA can be consuming, too stimulating, and unrewarding.

Thinking, Planning and Decision Making

When our minds are overburdened with information, our overall thinking, planning and decision-making efficiency is definitely compromised. We don’t comprehend contexts, which causes miscommunication and misunderstandings. We lose productivity, situation-judgment skills, and strategic-thinking capabilities because of poor time management and inability to effectively process all the data. This affects our planning and decision-making skills. Consequently, it leads to irrational personal and business choices and outcomes.

Health and Life Quality

IO can impair our well being. With information and demands pouring from all around, we usually get stressed out. This stress raises our blood pressure and triggers cardiovascular problems. Moreover, our vision weakens because we spend most of our time visually absorbing information. Not only do we get confused with the overflow of never-ending data, but we also get irritated by our inability to understand and filter it all. The frustration and stress increase especially when our personal or professional lives are affected by our poor, overload-caused decisions. As a result, the quality of life worsens.

Organizational Processes and Dynamics

Too much information affects our organization’s focus, interactions and functioning. Overloaded with or intrigued by promising business aspects, we try to keep up with too many new challenges. Our curiosity and ambition, and the determination to be on top, overshadow the basics our businesses should focus on. Moreover, our ability and ease of access to information erases codependency, communication, interactions, and teamwork. Also, as executives, we’re too preoccupied with handling paper and digital data, so we don’t focus on effective business operations as much as we should. Without a doubt, all of this could break down any company’s structure and efficiency.

“One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There's always more than you can cope with.”

Marshall McLuhan, communications theorist tweet this quote

IO Combat Ideas

So, how can we manage IO? The key to success in this information era is to stay focused on what’s important and relevant. Here are some tips on dealing with too much information:

Filter for Quality

With more experience comes a better ability to filter content. To achieve this skill, continue to examine literature and various sources to stay updated. But, remember to prioritize and filter your content based on its quality. This refers to both what you produce and receive. For instance, be specific yet concise and try not to overburden your coworkers with multi-themed topics or unnecessary messages, faxes, or phone calls. Read your texts before sending them to people and read other individuals’ messages carefully to avoid misunderstandings. Also, control your search results by using the Boolean method and narrow the scope of your searches. Focus only on reading, watching or listening to important, quality materials, without paying attention to all of the other noise. And lastly, use various techniques - such as RSS reader, news aggregator, and e-mail subscription cleanup - to filter your information flow.

Manage the Attention

Realizing what you, consciously or unknowingly, pay attention to may be a hard task, and managing your focus may be even more difficult. But, it’s very important. To avoid IO caused by hundreds of daily e-mails and other messages, try designating certain times in the morning and afternoon to read them and respond to senders. And, stick to this schedule. Moreover, focus on important assignments or projects first to ensure their timely and accurate completion. Then, move on to the tasks of lesser value or priority. Also, very importantly, avoid multitasking because you’ll never achieve your best quality work by trying to tackle a few items simultaneously. So, make sure you devote your full attention to one project at a time.

Use Different Channels

When looking for information or communicating with others, we usually rely on our mobile gadgets with e-mailing or text-processing capabilities. To break away from this electronic-device dependency and routine, try using alternative channels. For instance, call a person or write a letter or note, instead of e-mailing him or her. Meet with others face to face, listen to their stories, brainstorm on projects, and exchange ideas. Such interaction can only improve and maintain interpersonal and teamwork skills. In addition, if you have some time, you may want to conduct an offline research by going to a local library or asking coworkers for input or explanation.

Focus on Healing

Being in a constant information-alert and on-the-move mode can be damaging to our well being. So, you need to remember about disconnecting from it all from time to time. Ensure you take proper and regular breaks during your workday. Challenge yourself and resist the urge to constantly check your news stories and social networking sites, especially when you’re at home or on vacation. Also, rest your mind and eyes and release stress or overload by stretching, walking, exercising, or connecting with nature, whenever and however you can.

“Those who survive information overload will be those who search for information with broadband thinking but apply it with a single-minded focus.”

Kathryn Alesandrini, author tweet this quote

Nowadays, our access to information is easier and greater than ever. With a simple mouse move or keyword search, we access desired data from all parts of the world. Unfortunately, with such convenience comes information overload, which may negatively affect the quality of our lives and businesses. The foundation to managing IO is understanding where it comes from, recognizing how technology enables it, and knowing which strategies to use in different situations. Only with such awareness, we can manage it skillfully and to our advantage.

Bios of quoted individuals:

Eric Schmidt is a businessman, software engineer, and Google’s former executive chairman and CEO, who helped the company become a global leader in technology. A former Novell CEO and Sun Microsystems chief technology officer, Schmidt is a member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council in the U.K. and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian communications theorist, educator, actor, philosopher, writer, and social reformer. He became most famous for creating phases “global village” and “the media is the message,” and for predicting the World Wide Web almost three decades ahead of time.

Kathryn Alesandrini is an author and a retired college professor, who devoted herself to a real estate career. She’s known for her online college text and course, called Braving the New eWorld, and for writing a national awards and accolades winning book, titled Survive Information Overload.

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An entrepreneur with an eye for good design and advocate of simplicity. He brings a fresh strategy and approach to every project and plays an integral role in clients’ accomplishments through collaboration and close integration. Through his hands-on experience in technology and marketing, he ensures user experiences and technology are on the leading edge.