Information Overload

Keeping sane in the information age

Right now, there are billions of pieces of information, all readily available, right at your fingertips. Is it any wonder, then, that the availability of information has all become too much? We explore how to survive a work in an age of information overload.

Daniel Levitin, author of The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, states that ‘the processing capacity of the conscious mind has been estimated at 120 bits [of information] per second’. For comparison, we need to process 60 bits per second to understand one person speaking to us. Over-stretching our processing capacity makes us tired, and negatively affects our decision-making, innovation, and productivity. An article in HBR describes one study in which it was found that ‘people took an average of nearly 25 minutes to return to a work task after an e-mail interruption’. You can imagine how easily the minutes add up in one day if we are constantly exposing ourselves to high levels of information.

Surviving and Thriving in a World of Information Overload

How can we cope with all this information, especially when it is now an implicit expectation of our lives and work that we learn to navigate it? Below, we isolate a few symptoms of information overload, and how you can address them.

The Multi-Tasking Deception

The ability to multi-task well is often seen as a positive attribute, and more and more often a requirement for most job roles. The problem is that multi-tasking is not possible. Levitin argues that what we are really doing is rapid task shifting, which actually wastes time rather than saving it.

People who focus for a block of time have been shown to get more done by the end of the day, and at a higher quality and level of creativity. We recommend making sure you carve out at least one block of time per day, ideally in the morning, where you turn all notifications off and close your door.

Decision-Making Fatigue

Research suggests that there are only so many decisions we can make in a day. This supports the argument for making your most important decisions first-thing.

What are your most important decisions, you may ask? Most of us spend too much time on decisions that aren’t important or consequential. Consider creating your own framework for sorting your decisions to avoid overload. For an example, see Shane Parrish’s Decision Matrix.

Mental Focus

One of the main dangers of information overload is that it reduces mental focus, hindering your ability to make considered, high-quality decisions.

Taking breaks is a great way to reset the quality of your mental focus. During your breaks, try to do an activity that encourages the mind to wander. Examples include:

  • Meditation
  • Listening to music
  • Walking/exercise
  • Reading (not for work!)
  • Immersion in nature (even just viewing images of nature helps)

Letting your thoughts wander, without directing them, allows you to return to the task at hand with renewed focus and energy, and with an ability to better see connections and be creative.

Information can shape our lives by providing distractions and demanding more of our energy and focus. If you can isolate the specific ways in which you feel affected by information overload, you can then create small, manageable habits to prevent overload in your day-to-day schedule.

To learn more how the information age is affecting our lives, we recommend this podcast of a lecture by Daniel Levitin at the LSE in 2015.