What can you do about information overload?
HERE IN THE U.K., IF YOU’RE UP EARLY ENOUGH, YOU CAN WITNESS AN INTERESTING SUNDAY PHENOMENON.
Starting around 6 a.m., people surface from their homes, blink in the early morning light, scurry to their local newsagents and hurry home with milk, tea and a relatively odd package. Often wrapped in plastic, it can weigh up to three pounds (1.4 kilograms), is cumbersome to carry and contains as many words as several novels. Welcome to the British Sunday newspaper.
Recently, I’ve made a concerted effort to join these early risers—and buy and read a quality Sunday paper. But it’s almost impossible. I spread the sections (world news, business, politics, sports, home and garden, culture and gadgets) across the living room floor and by 3 p.m., as I pause to eat, I note that not only have I not tackled the meatier sections, the only information I’ve retained is what we 375 million Capricorns have to look forward to in the week ahead.
Instead of a relaxing pastime that allows me to keep abreast of world affairs, review the weekend’s sports and understand why I’d best not leave the house (Venus is rising), reading the Sunday newspaper has become a stressful chore, another job to complete by the following weekend, by which time I’ve made a concerted effort to forget everything anyway to make room in my brain for the next edition.
So, I stopped. I stopped buying a Sunday paper and thought no more about it…until last week when I shared the reason behind my decision with a few friends. The conversation that followed was enlightening. Most of us confessed to struggling with the amount of printed and digital information available to us. We admitted to feeling under pressure, struggling to find the right balance, “missing out” and being “left behind.”
These days, purveyors of information interact with us on an intimate level. Until recently, TV, radio and print served as the channels for information from media outlets or marketers. Then came email and news sites—as long as we logged onto a computer and dialed up the Internet, we could be contacted. But, the advent of smartphones introduces another level completely. They are third arms, through which we run our lives and make ourselves available 24-seven.
Watching just one TV channel is old school now, too. At a conference in New Orleans last year, I ate breakfast surrounded by no less that eight screens, each showing different channels—at least three with corresponding audio. The impact of any brand messaging was lost in the white noise of communication, news and information.
On planes, too, we are bombarded. Recently, 20 minutes before landing, we watched a three-minute advert for the city—not on small screens with headphones, on large drop-down screens at high volume. We had no choice but to listen.
In 2011, The Economist ran a fascinating article on information overload, noting the variety of names given to the subject including “data asphyxiation,” “data smog,” “information fatigue syndrome” and “cognitive overload.” British journalist Johann Hari emphasizes that “wired” means both “connected to the Internet” and “high, frantic and unable to concentrate.”
If you manage other people, you know the effects this can have. The Economist article quotes a survey by Reuters in which two-thirds of managers said that data deluge made their jobs less satisfying or hurt their personal relationships. One-third even said it had damaged their health. Research has shown that information overload can make people feel anxious and powerless (scientists have even discovered that multitaskers produce more stress hormones).
And Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, who has spent more than a decade studying people’s work habits, found that people are more likely to be creative if they are allowed to focus on something for some time without interruptions.
So what can be done about information overload? You can rely on those who created the problem to solve it. Google, for one, is trying to improve its online searches by taking into account more personal information. Popular computer program Freedom disconnects you from the Web at preset times.
Or you can try willpower. Turn off your smartphone, reduce your access to the Web. In January, Newsweek suggested throwing your smartphone away as one of its 31 ways to get smarter, saying that checking email “disrupts focus and saps productivity.”
Easier said than done, since receiving email makes us feel important—academics Edward Hallowell and John Ratey argue that we are addicted to the “dopamine squirt” we get when we receive messages.
I’ll repeat a suggestion that I made in 2009: Find some thinking time and switch everything off. It will take some getting used to, but science says it may be just what you need to work smarter, not longer. If you’re still reading this, it means you chose to take five minutes out of your busy day to read my column. Bearing in mind the variety of alternative information available, I’ll take that as a compliment. Thank you! One+
One+ March 2012,