Dealing with Information Overload
Jun 30, 2010 Clay Johnson

Did you know the term information overload has been around since 1964, and that the concept pops up as early as 1755? Check this out from French philosopher Denis Diderot:

“As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.”

The problem of “information overload” isn’t particularly new — it’s a problem older than our nation, and a problem that still has not been solved. You know why?

Because the problem isn’t information overload. Trying to solve an overload problem is impossible. Are we obese because we have “food overload”?. Of course not— it is not the poor (mostly) inanimate food’s fault. We’re obese because we have “food overconsumption” and while the abundance may make it easy to be fat, it isn’t as though the food’s mere existence is making us fat. Simply putting Paris Hilton in a room full of Tyson Anytizers won’t make her gain weight.

The right question to ask is:

How do we deal with information overconsumption?

We’ve gotten dealing with food overconsumption down to a practical science. While there’s 55,000 diet books available to us, they all boil down to the same thing: eat less, exercise more. I think that if you’re interested in improving your focus, productivity, and stress levels, building conscious information consumption and attention fitness into your daily routine seems imminently worthwhile.

Perhaps, like food dieting, 150 years from now we’ll have 55,000 books on information dieting. Here are a three tips that will hold you over until then.

Consume Information Consciously

According to the University of California in San Diego, the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of information a day. Though I’d bet that little of that information is consumed consciously. The first step to dealing with information overconsumption is understanding that information is something we consume, and that we have the ability to choose what we consume. And like everything else we consume, there are probably some consumption habits that are healthier than others. For instance: if you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with the information you’re consuming, you’re diet is probably unhealthy. You’re consuming too much opinion and not enough fact.

That’s not to say that the consumption of expert analysis and opinion is a bad idea— rather, that its consumption ought to be limited such that you maintain a clear mind and the ability to form your own opinions. And yes, I get the irony of writing about limiting your consumption of opinion pieces in what is, basically, an opinion piece.

Practice attention fitness

If you’re suffering from an inability to focus or an inability to pay attention for long amounts of time you probably need an attention fitness regimen. For computer-based workers, the problem seems to always boil down to distraction. Email inboxes and tabbed browsing seem to be the biggest culprit. It’s probably because our brains reward us for connecting whether those connections are good or bad. Try an app like MailPlane that keeps your email in one window and controllable. Keeping those open tabs at a minimum (anybody want to make a chrome extension that limits the number of tabs that can be opened?) seems like a good idea, too.

Get yourself an interval timer. Start out at a low work/rest time (say, 5 minutes work, 1 minute rest), close all windows on your screen except the ones you will need to accomplish a particular task. Start the timer, work on that task, then spend the next minute resting. Take a breath. As you get more success in staying focused for that 5 minutes, increase the work/rest ratio. Treat it like an endurance building cardio routine for your brain.

If you work in an office environment, I suggest getting yourself some large headphones. Not only do they isolate sound, they also give a signal to your peers that you’re working on something and don’t want to be interrupted.

Breathe

Linda Stone came up with a great term: email apnea. She observed that people responding to emails and text messages had reduced oxygen intake. Crazy! Keep yourself breathing. If you’re practicing attention fitness, take that one minute off and breathe through your nose. Keeping yourself relaxed is going to allow you to process and consume information better.

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson