Reframing Information Overload

By: Brad Buchanan | bbuchanan@newzgroup.com

Newz Group has been archiving newspaper content from across the Midwest for several years. Based on the volumes being processed, our Director of IT recently indicated that we would run out of memory on our servers by the end of the year. The investment will need to be made in our electronic infrastructure if we are to continue our archiving projects. Don’t you wish our minds worked the same way, and when we approach the capacity of what our brains can hold, we simply visit our neighborhood neurologist and have additional memory installed?

In 1970, Alvin Toffler coined the term “information overload” in his seminal book Future Shock. Yet the phrase only refers to external stimuli, not what is going on inside our heads. The real problem is not the amount of information available to us, but our limitations to process, prioritize and remember. What is commonly called “information overload” might more accurately be characterized as “cognitive capacity overload.”

Like any economic model, demand must be balanced with supply in order to achieve an equilibrium that is stable and workable. In the Internet Age information supply greatly exceeds our information demands. Each of us carries around a bunch of extraneous, irrelevant detritus between our ears. I can easily recall the name of my 2nd-grade teacher, but struggle to remember where I am supposed to meet my friend for lunch today. For an excellent book on the subject, try Torkel Klingberg’s The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory.

The sheer amount of information available often makes decision making difficult. A friend recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer, Googled “cancer diets,” and was inundated with a host of contradictory and confusing nutritional advice. Some said no dairy products, others recommended lots of milk, cheese, and eggs. Some said no red meat, others said moderate amounts of red meat. In exasperation, he finally gave up and called the hospital dietician who told him to use common sense in getting good nutrition and be moderate in his meal choices. One technique, then, is to off-load specialized questions to experts, who are proficient in their area of competency and follow their advice. It is okay to delegate information responsibilities to those with more knowledge.

Clickbait may be tempting, but we should train ourselves to generally avoid it. Yes, it is cute to see baby bunnies nursing from a cat, or watch babies put on their game face. But it is extraneous, distracting, and can clutter up your mind. Sensationalistic stories may be eye-catching and seemingly fascinating, but often sacrifice context, facts and substantive conclusions for flash and glitter. Look for even-handed, verifiable, and productive intelligence, or in other words, fiercely filter information, ignoring irrelevancies, sensationalism, and obvious hokum.

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Prioritization of information is critical. Determine what is important and what is not. My domestic harmony hinged on remembering my wedding anniversary this week, but the Cubs sweep of the Cardinals over the weekend preyed on my mind to such an extent that it almost blocked memorializing one of the most important events in my life. Am I going to remember the Cardinals dismal performance at Wrigley next year? Probably not. Am I going to remember my wedding anniversary next year…I better!

One tool for proper prioritization is to organize information into four general categories:

Requires immediate action, such as a family emergency.

 Information I need to take care of, but not right at this moment, like paying bills.

• Some information merits a “wait and see” approach, for example, a worker’s proposal to buy ergonomically chairs for all employees. Develop a “wait and see” file, and see if anyone raises the issue again. Review and purge the file every month or so, discarding items that have not resurfaced.

• Disregard information that is obviously inconsequential or bogus. Some information is simply worthless, a waste of time. It should be summarily discarded. To reiterate, ruthless filtering is required.

Insidious temptations lie within most internet-based articles (including this one) in the form of links to other articles, which may offer depth and context on the primary article, but can also lead to additional links that create a perpetual echo chamber of extraneous information and detracts from your primary objective. An excellent book on how to avoid such diversionary meandering is Lucy Jo Pallidino’s Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload, but please don’t click that link until you have finished this article! Combat distractions.

Perhaps the most important tool for dealing with cognitive capacity overload is the ability to disconnect. Turn off your phone, leave your computer alone, and give your mind a chance to rest and refocus. Take a walk in the woods, meditate, exercise, go on a technology fast. Test yourself by going off the grid for a few days. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a great place to disconnect. Cell phones don’t work in the interior of the BWCA, and there is no electricity. Unplugging helps center and refocus the mind.

We cannot control the flow of information coming at us, the external stimuli. What we can control is how we process, prioritize and internalize the information. Control exposure to incoming stimuli, and train the mind to properly process and recall relevant content.