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The Age of Information Overload

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What exactly does information overload mean? And, more importantly, how do we recognize and (consequently) overcome the effects it can have on our brain’s functioning?

I recently read an article posted on CNN that gets to the heart of the matter:

Information overload refers to the notion that we’re trying to take in more than the brain can handle.

According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, paying attention to multiple things at the same time comes at a valuable price; one in which we can’t afford to lose:

The conscious mind can attend to about three things at once. Trying to juggle any more than that, and you’re going to lose some brainpower.”

It’s problematic (and kind of scary) to think about how much brain power one is losing over a course of a day just by working through the elements we’re typically exposed to. Granted, living in the digital age comes with so many awesome benefits in our professional lives: the ease of networking online, staying abreast of the latest and greatest trends and technologies, direct and immediate marketing and advertising, etc. Yet, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors if we allow our jobs to be defined by these parameters. Because, as Levitin points out above, overloading our brains is hurting rather than helping us.

The CNN article contains a very intriguing interview with Dr. Levitin that summarizes a lot of what is currently being done to understand and combat information overload. For your convenience, I’ve highlighted some of the Q&A below.

What does it mean to have information overload? How do we know if we’re overloaded?

Daniel Levitin: If you’re making a bunch of little decisions, like do I read this email now or later? Do I file it? Do I forward it? Do I have to get more information? Do I put it in the Spam folder? That’s a handful of decisions right there, and you haven’t done anything meaningful.

It takes up almost as much energy and nutrients to process trivial decisions or important ones.

Paying attention obviously means being able to recognize first of all what is important and what is not. Is that one of the big challenges with information overload?

Daniel Levitin: You don’t know what’s irrelevant until you pay attention to it. Take shopping for example. The average supermarket had 9,000 distinct products just 25 years ago. That same supermarket today has 40,000 unique products. The average American gets all their shopping needs met in about 150 items. That means when you’re trying to fill your shopping cart you’ve got to ignore 39,850 items just to get the shopping done. To ignore it you have to pay attention to it.

We need to exercise a little bit of self discipline and allocate our time. I’m a big fan of prioritizing tasks so that we don’t end up going down a wormhole of irrelevant things and find out two hours later we haven’t done anything.

What about recharging our brains?

Daniel Levitin: After a couple of hours of being engaged, we feel our attention start to lag and so we naturally reach for a cup of coffee to keep going. That feeling of the attention starting to lag is the brain’s own way of organically and naturally trying to hit a reset button for us.

If we would just let it take over, stare out the window for 10 or 15 minutes, take a nap, and let our minds wander… That has the effect of hitting the neural reset button in the brain and getting us back to our task with a brand new sense of engagement and energy. A 15 minute nap is equivalent to an extra hour and a half sleep the night before. It can be equivalent to an effective increase of IQ of 10 points.

information overload

© Flickr user DeaPeaJay

I’ll be honest–if you don’t believe (in some way, shape or form) you’ve been subjected to information overload I’d be shocked! You may even be asking yourself: How does anyone get through their day without fighting off the distractions, interruptions and time-suckers that come with being constantly “plugged in”? If so, then take it from me, you’re not alone in your thoughts. It’s become practically impossible to avoid the fast-paced digital world. At times, it may even feel like the only way to escape is by going off-the-grid!

Now if this sounds absurd to you, then congratulations! You’re one of the rare few who go unaffected by the epidemic of information overload. But, for the rest of us . . . take heed. It’s time to educate ourselves and take steps toward freeing the ties that bind and regaining control over what we actually want to accomplish in our personal and professional lives.

Here at The Methodology blog, we’ve talked about information overload as well as the adverse effects of multitasking. Why? Because we believe it’s important to point out that societal norms aren’t always geared to positively enhance our situations. At times what may seem normal, is in fact not. Take for example reading and replying to emails. With our smartphones constantly in tow, we check and reply to messages throughout the day (and night). Unfortunately, the standard for email has become such that people not only expect immediate answers, they demand them.

The problem is, we convince ourselves that always being connected and juggling multiple projects at a time is enhancing our performance at work. Here’s a secret: it’s not! In fact, if you’re operating under such an assumption chances are you’re probably dodging productivity landmines left and right. Believe us when we say, there are much better ways of working. The challenge isn’t just finding them—but implementing them into your routine.

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Ashley Lee

Ashley Lee

Ashley has been working with the AccelaWork team since 2008. She is a communications expert with a background in corporate work, and a graduate of the University of Dayton with a degree in Public Relations. She lives in the greater Indianapolis area with her husband and four children. Ashley enjoys jewelry, fashion, and coffee.
Ashley Lee

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