Understanding Information Overload

Information Overload is an increasing problem both in the workplace, and in life in general. Those that learn to deal with it effectively will have a major advantage in the next few years.

Information Overload is when you are trying to deal with more information than you are able to process to make sensible decisions. The result is either that you either delay making decisions, or that you make the wrong decisions.

It is now commonplace to be getting too many e-mails, reports and incoming messages to deal with them effectively.

The Information Overload Age

The first recorded use of the phrase “information overload” was used by the futurologist Alvin Toffler in 1970, when he predicted that the rapidly increasing amounts of information being produced would eventually cause people problems.

Although people talk about “living in the information age,” written information has been used for thousands of years. The invention of the Printing Press a few hundred years ago made it possible to distribute written information to large amounts of people. However, it is only with the advent of modern computers that the ability to create, duplicate and access vast amounts of information has created Information Overload amongst the general population.

The root of the problem is that, although computer processing and memory is increasing all the time, the humans that must use the information are not getting any faster. Effectively, the human mind acts as a bottleneck in the process.

Not “Sensory Overload”

Information Overload needs to be differentiated from “Sensory Overload.” This is when your mind is bombarded with images, sounds and sensations that overload the brain.

The brain can actually handle tens of millions of signals from our senses every second. Think of the number of light sensors within the eye, and equate this to the resolution of a digital camera (and the corresponding file size of the photos it produces). Then include the thousands of touch-sensitive areas of the body, and the range of our hearing. But we can still deal with all of this, because the brain has had tens of millions of years of evolution to deal with this.

Compare those tens of millions of years to the few thousand years we’ve been dealing with information such as talking and writing. Our brains are still learning to deal with this, so we can only process a very small amount of it at a time.

Causes

Information Overload is now commonplace in offices around the World. Some of the causes include:

  • The widespread access to the Web
  • The ease of sending e-mail messages to large numbers of people
  • As information can be duplicated for free, there is no variable cost in producing more copies – people send reports and information to people who may need to know, rather than definitely need to know.
  • Poorly created information sources (especially online), which:
    • are not simplified or filtered to make them shorter
    • are not written clearly, so people have to spend more time understanding them
    • contain factual errors or inconsistencies – requiring further research

How the Problem Spreads

In an office, the problem of Information Overload spreads like a virus. If one person is suffering information overload, they tend not to process the information they are handling very well. Rather than summarising a report or document, they just pass on the whole thing to everyone in the office.

Now, the rest of the office must wade through 80 pages to find the few key pieces of information that are relevant to their jobs and the decisions they need to make.

Solutions

Although there is no simple solution to the problem of Information Overload, there are some things that can be done to reduce the problem.

These include:

  • Spending less time on gaining information that is nice to know and more time on things that we need to know now.
  • Focusing on quality of information, rather than quantity. A short concise e-mail is more valuable than a long e-mail.
  • Learning how to create better information (this is what Infogineering is about). Be direct in what you ask people, so that they can provide short precise answers.
  • Single-tasking, and keeping the mind focused on one issue at a time.
  • Spending parts of the day disconnected from interruptions (e.g. switch off e-mail, telephones, Web, etc.) so you can fully concentrate for a significant period of time on one thing.
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