What is Information Overload?
Contrary to popular belief information overload is a concept that has been around for centuries. As early as the 3rd or 4th century BC, people regarded information overload with disapproval. Around this time, in Ecclesiastes 12:12, the passage revealed the writer’s comment “of making books there is no end” and in 1st century AD, Seneca the Elder commented, that “the abundance of books is distraction.”
The term “Information overload” was popularized by Alvin Toffler in his bestselling 1970 book Future Shock. It refers to the difficulty a person can have understanding an issue and making decisions that can be caused by the presence of too much information.
However, it has been the advent of the Information Age and access to the internet that has popularised the phenomenon that is Information Overload. The internet has connected billions of people to a constant and growing source of information that is not only available but is relentlessly pushed at people.
Sources of Information Overload
So where does all this information come from? The 3 main culprits are:
Email – Without doubt the biggest source of information. People receive vast numbers of Emails of all descriptions on a daily basis. Most of these are spam and maybe caught by spam filters but many will end up in people’s inbox.
RSS Feeds – The ability to subscribe for all the latest information updates from websites that people are interested in.
Social Media – The rise in popularity of Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc. and the advent of smart phones have provided a constant stream of information that is accessible from anywhere at anytime. Whilst a lot of this information is easy to digest it is often a gateway to more information and, if you’re not careful, you can lose hours digesting information and conversing with friends, colleagues and associates.
7 Tips to Avoid Information Overload
So how do you get this information under control? Here are my top 7 tips which will hopefully provide some help.
1. Reduce number of emails
No surprises here as it is the greatest source of information. More efficient use of email is a blog post in its own right. However, you must reduce the volume of emails that you receive by unsubscribing from as many lists as possible. You will not and cannot process all the information that is being sent to you so be ruthless. If you find that there is something you really miss then you can always re-subscribe… the sender will not mind!
2. Turn off notifications
If you are notified every time an email, text, Facebook post or tweet hits your inbox then your tendency will be to have a look to see who it is from and whether it is important. Chances are that it can wait and it is not worth the interruption of what you were doing.
3. Define your Goals
Ensure you have very clear goals and activities to achieve those goals. In this way you will only process the information that is important to that particular activity or task.
4. Keep Focused
Avoid all the temptations to read another email or article. Stay true to the task you are working on. The distraction may look really interesting, but is it a good use of your valuable time?
5. Allocate time for Information review
Set time aside to allow yourself to browse through the mountain of information. It is important that keep abreast of what is going on and get some fresh ideas and perspectives. Try allocating time when you are least productive so that you don’t waste that valuable ‘doing’ time. Perhaps you could sacrifice some of the time in front of the TV.
6. 80:20 rule
If you a researching a topic then often the 80:20 rule will apply, i.e. you will obtain 80% of the information you need from 20% of the material that is available. You could spend a lot more time processing more information but it will not add a great deal more value to your work. I would recommend the 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss for a great explanation of this concept.
7. Archive for Future use
If you believe the information may be useful at some stage in the future then set up some rules to archive the information. Ideally use automatic rules where possible so that you are not tempted to have a quick sneak only to find that you are still reading it 30 minutes later. Many email systems will allow you to set up rules that will send emails to specific folders based on the sender or subject details.
The volume of information that is available is only going to grow and grow so you need to take control of the way in which you access the information and manage your time. To put it in context consider this amazing statistic:
‘All of the information produced between the dawn of time and 2003 is now being produced every 48 hours!’
I will leave you with this question, how much of this information do you really need to know about?