As a writer for the web, I’m well acquainted with information overload. One bit of information leads to five facts, which leads to three articles, which leads to an interesting interview you must listen to right now, which leads to 10 pages in your browser.
I’ve always loved the scavenger hunt research requires. Every clue leads to another. Every clue uncovered is a prize in itself: learning something new and interesting and getting one step closer to the carrot (such as the answer to your original question).
But there’s always one more thing to look up, learn and digest.
Whether your livelihood lives online — like mine — or not, you probably use the Web quite a bit. The Internet makes research a breeze. Want to know what triggered the World Wars or how the states got their shapes? Want to know how to bake a tasty tilapia or buy a reliable used car?
Information is merely a click — or, more accurately, a Google search — away. Depending on your query, there’s likely at least a dozen, if not hundreds, of blogs on the topic, a similar number of books and many more articles.
This is a good thing, but it also can overburden our brains.
According to Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D, a psychologist and author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload, “Information overload occurs when a person is exposed to more information than the brain can process at one time.”
Alvin Toffler actually coined the term in 1970 in his book Future Shock. As more and more people started using the Web, “information overload” became a popular phrase to describe how we felt about going online, Palladino said.
According to neuroscientists, the more accurate term is “cognitive overload,” she said. That’s “because the brain can process vast amounts of information depending on the form in which it’s presented,” she said.
For instance, taking a walk exposes us to a slew of complex data, but as Palladino said, our brains are able to process this information, and our nervous system gets soothed. Contrast that with standing on the corner of Times Square in New York City. Our brain struggles to organize all the sensory data barreling its way, and our nervous system becomes overstimulated, she said. (If you’re a highly sensitive person, like I am, overstimulated is an understatement.)
Information or cognitive overload can lead to indecisiveness, bad decisions and stress, Palladino said. Indecisiveness or analysis paralysis occurs when you’re “overwhelmed by too many choices, your brain mildly freezes and by default, [and] you passively wait and see.” Or you make a hasty decision because vital facts get wedged between trivial ones, and you consider credible and non-credible sources equally, she said.
When you can’t tolerate the overwhelm any longer, you just go for it (and likely go with the wrong choice), she said. “When overload is chronic, you live in a state of unresolved stress and anxiety that you can’t meet ongoing demands to process more information,” she said.
Overcoming Information or Cognitive Overload
In Find Your Focus Zone, Palladino suggests readers view incoming information as bringing bags of groceries into your home. “To put them away, you need time, an amount that’s limited to what fits on the counter, and an already clean fridge and organized pantry.” These are her tips:
1. Schedule breaks. Take a break away from the computer. This gives your brain a breather, and helps you regain perspective, she said. Plus, the quiet time can help you zero in on making a good decision.
2. Set limits. Because the Internet is available 24/7, you can consume information for hours. Limit how long you scan for information. Filter your sources, focusing only on the high-quality ones, she said.
3. Keep your virtual and physical spaces clutter-free. Make sure your computer files and desk are “clear, well-organized and ready to handle overflow,” she said.
Dealing with Analysis Paralysis
As Palladino noted, when you’re bombarded with too much information, you might experience analysis paralysis. You get so overwhelmed and fed up that you simply stop. On his website, business consultant and coach Chris Garrett suggests asking these valuable questions if you’re struggling with analysis paralysis on a project:
- What do you absolutely have to do for the project to be a success?
- What tasks can absolutely not be put off until later?
- What are the most painful items to change post-launch?
- What could realistically go wrong?
The Conundrum of Control
What might be most disconcerting to individuals isn’t the abundance of information, but the feeling of not having any control, speculates Guardian reporter Oliver Burkeman. In his column on information overload, he suggests focusing on finding ways to minimize the stress of overload.
Ironically, it’s often technology that helps me feel in charge of information, instead of feeling pushed and pulled by it. My go-to programs are Freedom, which blocks the Internet, and OmmWriter, which provides a distraction-free writing space. This helps me to focus on one task at a time. (Deadlines also don’t hurt.)
Consciously consuming information is another strategy. Figure out what you need to find, and be ruthless about sticking to your parameters. Save anything that’s interesting but unrelated for another time.
Regardless of how you decide to approach information overload, don’t dismiss the importance of regularly disconnecting.