Dealing with Information Overload

Information Overload

We all know that the only true constant is change and, in today’s world, nothing is changing more, or growing faster, than information. A 2010 estimate put global Internet traffic at 21 exabytes, that’s 21 million terabytes and a terabyte, for the sake of clarity, is a unit of information equal to one million million. In 2016, global traffic reached 1.1 zettabytes. Again, for the sake of wowness, a zettabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. 

Every day in 2019, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created. Look it up. That’s huge. The ability of companies, much fewer individuals, to consume and make sense of the information that is available (and necessary) to make good decisions is becoming an almost insurmountable challenge. The problem to be solved is to how to deal with and manage this mountain of information with both technology and know-how to convert this information into actionable knowledge. 

Information overload involves tweets, texts, emails, reports, articles, research material, background data, 140 characters on social media, videos, photographs, posts, source websites, channels, fake news, real news and much more. We’ve created more information in the last ten years than in all of human history before that. All of this is more information than any human or computer brain is currently configured to handle. The conscious mind can pay attention to three to five, things at once. If we get much beyond that, we begin to exercise poorer judgment,  lose track of things and lose our focus. Try remembering a phone number that’s not a family member or a reference number that has more than five digits.

The problem is accelerating. We’re bombarded with more and more information, and, because it’s easy to find and send and because the senders are often careless or sloppy, much of it is irrelevant or erroneous to our needs. And what compounds this is that we have less time to process it, to sort out what’s helpful and what’s not. What’s worse, it’s affecting health and limiting people’s ability to do their jobs confidently. Research shows that 25% of office workers and 36% of managers worldwide experience significant stress and poor health due to the volume of information they’re required to process.

In other research conducted with managers from the United States, England, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia, 73% of them felt they needed large amounts of information to do their jobs well. These same managers reported that at no time were they ever up-to-date with the information presented to them and invariably, therefore, mistakes, and time-wasting occurred. Many also reported tension with their co-workers and their senior management as well as reduced job satisfaction.

Many people in most organisations suffer in silence, believing that there’s something wrong with them. They believe that they’re less capable than their colleagues. They become anxious, irritable and unfocused. They feel that they’re not achieving and forever ‘losing’. They feel overwhelmed. However, people don’t always help themselves. We’re always looking at material on our phones – on average every fifteen seconds. People are easily side-tracked. People also tend not to read important information carefully or sufficiently well for it to be remembered. Often people don’t understand the terminology and go to little effort to become educated in terminology or the specifics of the information we receive. And so on.

The cause of information overload isn’t necessarily too much information. The problem is less about the information and more about our response to information. Expectations around information have changed. Expectations regarding response times have shifted. We used to have a reasonable time to respond to a particular piece of information or the request for information. Now we’re expected to respond almost immediately. We receive reminders about almost impossible deadlines or schedules.

Thanks to smartphones, social networks, smart TVs and other devices, we’re constantly flooded with information 24/7, particularly but not only in large, global organisations. We’re expected to work faster, harder and longer. Our performance is expected to grow exponentially. We’re expected to take in or discover more information, but we often don’t know how to do that – or we don’t have the tools. More than likely we don’t fully understand the information we receive or what we’re supposed to find. Every two days we create as much information from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. Only 0.5% of all data is ever analysed or used.

The causes of information overload come down to people. Our information-processing limitations are variable but generally low. Our attitude towards lots of information is to ignore most of it. Sometimes the information is just badly written or poorly translated and sometimes it’s irrelevant to us, but we still get it on a cc or bcc anyway. One of the most common issues is that people see information as a nuisance and not part of their job. Another is that it’s used as a power tool – ‘if you don’t understand this, then you must be stupid’. 

Information is often saved regardless of its value, purpose or relevance. That’s a hindrance and is like keeping millions of steel filing cabinets with stuff that you’re never going to look at. Ever. Some people request surplus information but don’t read or do anything with it. Others read it, but don’t know what to do with it or how it can help them make a decision.

The problem of information overload is going to get worse. Fighting information overload isn’t the solution to the problem because there’s nothing we can do about that. Managing what we do about and with it is within our capability. While technology is playing and will play a crucial role in information management, the primary solution will come down to our choices, habits and responses. When offered data from multiple sources, it will become increasingly possible to use metrics and various standards to filter out the sources we don’t want. That may be frightening at first because there’s an unspoken fear lurking behind the scenes: ‘What if I miss something important?’ Implementing this approach takes a bit of faith, but if we do miss something, it’s highly unlikely to be the end of days.

Another aspect of making information overload less of a burden is to train ourselves to focus on one thing at a time. Easier said than done but try and say no to interruptions. Information isn’t created equal, so we must choose our priorities and explain to anyone who needs to know what our priorities are. At any given point we may find that one task is more important than another. Sometimes that requires dropping the current task. 

It can be useful to use computing tools to save, track and annotate the web pages and content we’re working on. We can use these tools to tag content with standardised keywords we can use to find them later. And we can add notes, share information and store it in a format that works best for us.

We must work with information that’s, directly and indirectly, related to what we’re doing when we’re doing it. We must do our best to eliminate, filter out or block irrelevance. We must do what we can to ensure that the information we need is available to us when we need it. That takes access, practice, requires discipline and depends on patience. Usually yours.

Information, when it’s managed well, creates opportunity. The vast majority of people around us all are drowning in excess data so we should focus on relevance in all that we do. While most people enjoy a growing capability to extract relevant information that supports their projects, lives and careers, much of what is encountered is at best of marginal value and often gets in the way of our goals and objectives. We don't have hours on end to contend with everything that competes for our attention; most of the time it feels as if we don't have sufficient time at all.  

Planning comes into its own. The more we plan, the more we can control what we need to do against a timeline. But life is real, and plans get hijacked. We can only achieve what can be achieved and, if the schedule we’ve been given is unrealistic, then it should be challenged at the outset not later on. Some requests, tasks and people should be given back if we can do that – or refused. If we can’t, then we must talk to someone about it. If we’re overloaded, we must say something. If nothing changes, we need to think about changing jobs. 

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