Information overload: Why we’re facing it and how to handle it

There are few things as tiring as trying to sift through and make sense of all the information out there. With the current 24/7 news cycle, unlimited access to advice, academic knowledge, and expert opinion, and unlimited options for where, when, how, and from whom to hear it, information overload is pretty much inescapable.

It can become exhausting and overwhelming to deal with so much information—not to mention trying to sort out what’s fact and what’s alternative fact, which news sources are trustworthy, and how you can use it all to make informed decisions.

Yet the answer isn’t to be less informed. It’s learning how to search out, consume, and filter it in the best way possible.

Why do we get information overload in the first place?

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At every moment of every day our brains are taking in an incredible amount of information. Everything from the sights, smells, feelings, and tastes of the world around us, to written words, conversations, and body language. All that information needs to be processed and dealt with so we can continue living without it taking all our attention.

And we’ve evolved to be pretty good at this!

However, as we started to throw more sources of information into the equation (like the internet, 24/7 news, and smartphones) we’ve pushed our brains to their limit.

As Lucy Jo Palladino, author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload, explains:

“Information overload occurs when a person is exposed to more information than the brain can process at one time.”

As we take in more and more complex information in less time and have more options laid out in front of us our brains panic and freeze. We lose the ability to make good decisions. We feel stuck. Overwhelmed. And stressed.

Go on like this for too long and, as Palladino says, that state of unresolved stress and anxiety makes it impossible to process anything further.

Not only is this obviously a huge personal issue, but it also has a major impact on our ability to do good work.

When there’s too much email, Slack, and other sources of information coming at us all day, we end up multitasking, which is less productive and distracting.

Fast news, Infinity Pools, and the paradox of choice

Email and workplace communication are obviously a massive contributor to information overload. But let’s start with another information source most of us feel especially overwhelmed by these days: The news.

There’s nothing wrong with having a healthy thirst for current events. The problem is that our news sources have turned from a water fountain to a firehose.

According to Alan Jacobs, author of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, our current news cycle is “far, far too short.”

While the pre-24/7 news cycle of evening broadcasts and newspapers at least seemed possible to keep up with, no one would be able to consume the thousands of posts, videos, and articles being put out every day. So why do we still try?

According to Ethan Zuckerman, director of the the Center for Civic Media at MIT, our drive to stay informed happens for a number of reasons:

  • We’re bored: Fast news is constantly changing, updating, and giving us something to consume.
  • It’s always available: The media has trained us to expect fast news as the default way to stay informed
  • It helps us build social capital: By constantly consuming, we always have something new to share with friends and colleagues, thus positioning ourselves as being “in the know”.
  • We try to “binge watch” the news: We approach breaking news like the next chapter in a great novel: we’re desperate to find out what happens next and follow the narrative to its conclusion, which keeps us clicking on newer updates as soon as they’re available.

And it’s not just news that we treat in this way. John Zeratsky, author of Make Time, calls news sites and similar never-ending sources of content “Infinity Pools”. You can dip your toe in whenever you want and find something new to suck you in.

Even positive sources of information can quickly become overwhelming, like doing research on Wikipedia or reading inspiring blog posts.

Surprisingly, most of these issues come down to our relationship with choice. With unlimited options comes increased choices and a need to make decisions about what to engage with and who to trust. And that’s not easy.

As psychologist Barry Schwartz explains in The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, while we assume we want more choice, an abundance of options actually leaves us feeling more depressed, confused, and leads to choice overload.

Instead of making a choice and feeling good about it, we end up in a constant state of FOMO, stressing that we’ve made the wrong decision and searching for something better.

Creating your own personal filters to combat information overload

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That constant search for new, better, or novel information can empower as much as overwhelm us. Unfortunately, the line between the two is razor thin.

As author Benjamin P. Hardy writes:

“You have to choose what you consume consciously… The information you allow yourself to process affects you greatly. You can become confused quickly with all of the conflicting voices, opinions, and options in the world today.”

Here are a few suggestions on ways to narrow your focus, find trusted resources, and combat information overload.

RescueTime helps you take control over information overload with in-depth reporting, customizable goals, and real-time alerts on how you’re spending time on all your digital devices. Find out more here.

Choose “Just in time” over “Just in case” information

There’s a difference between searching out information because you need it now versus just storing it for later. Game developer and instructor Kathy Sierra calls this “just in time” versus “just in case” learning.

Here’s how Sierra explains it:

“Think about the last technical topic you learned from either a class or a book. How much of the details do you remember?  The answer probably depends a lot on whether you knew that you needed to be able to do that particular thing you were learning. And that’s huge.

“Because if even at a high level you know you need to learn PHP, if the parts your studying don’t seem directly related to what you know you want to do, the learning will be weak.”

Think about how you can apply this technique to your information consumption. Rather than read every news story just in case it comes up in conversation, seek out only what you need now. (Or, as Jeff Stibel writes on USA Today, understand that in most cases, important news will find you).

This doesn’t mean that you should forgo any information that doesn’t have an immediate purpose. But simply to use this as a filter when you’re feeling the effects of information overload.

Slow the news cycle by choosing a trusted source and signing up for their newsletter

You might not be able to escape the firehose of information out there, but you can turn it down a few notches. Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Journalism School suggests trying out the slow news movement.

Rather than get caught up in the “breaking” part of news where facts are more uncertain, slow news is the idea of a longer news cycle that focuses more on fact-checking and careful reporting than being first to report on a story.

Gillmor’s gone so far as to cut down on news-based RSS feeds, stop checking Twitter, and even deleted his browser bookmarks to news sites. As he explains:

“The more current the news is, the more skeptical I am of what I’m seeing.”

Instead, he gets his “slow news” from mailing lists where experts send out links to information they believe is useful and important. The sources are trustworthy, says Gillmor, but this approach also “automatically puts a time gap into the process, which is valuable.”

Use technology to fool yourself into “being in control” of email and information

Information overload isn’t just about how much information we take in. But how in control we feel of it.

Take your inbox, for example. Most people get overwhelmed thinking about unread emails. But what happens when you tag them “to read” or “to deal with” and file them away? Even though you haven’t really dealt with the information, the anxiety subsides.

It’s irrational. But, as Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian, so is the idea of being stressed by information overload in the first place:

“There are millions of information sources we could, in theory, keep up with, but only a few that we tell ourselves we must—and the distinction’s pretty arbitrary.

“I try to answer all personal emails, but I don’t worry about answering all personal Twitter messages. The pile of books-to-be-read on my desk glowers at me, but I never feel anxious about the vast amounts of reading matter waiting, undiscovered, on the web. So why not fight irrationality with irrationality?”

If you need extra help, we’ve put together in-depth guides on how to organize your Gmail inbox, Slack accounts, and to-do lists.

If you’re feeling the effects of information overload, you can always take a break

“The Internet never says, ‘You’ve had enough, now go away,’” says Hooked author, Nir Eyal. And that’s the case for any information source.

Wikipedia never prompts you to go take a break. While YouTube and Netflix purposefully push you to consume more and more. Instead, it’s up to us to become better content and information consumers.

As Palladino writes in Find Your Focus Zone, we should all schedule breaks into our day, set hard limits on when and how much information we consume, and keep our digital and physical spaces clutter free and well organized.

And above all else, remember that you’re not alone. Everyone from CEOs to authors to well-known journalists deal with information overload. So go easy on yourself, turn down the firehose, and find the sources that mean the most to you and work with everything else you need to do each day.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

6 comments

  1. This is a great article! I shun the news media because of these issues, but you’ve given me ideas for how to check in on things I’m interested in from trusted sources. Thanks!

  2. I appreciate the timeliness of this post, right when the news (in both content and sheer amount) has been particularly overwhelming. I wanted to check out that NOD (News On Demand) app that you linked to, but the site doesn’t appear to be up and I can’t find the app on the App Store.

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