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Information overload is an overblown fear

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For the past few years, the term ‘information overload’ has saturated numerous media outlets, from reputable scholarly journals to more mainstream magazines offering solutions to an apparent epidemic sweeping the modern world. The argument contends that the accessibility of information online, from go-to search sites such as Google and Wikipedia, to social media outlets, are overwhelming our cognitive functions. Simple decisions are portrayed as burdens and procrastination is to blame for a generation lazier than ever before. These sorts of claims, however, are something that hard-working young students would undoubtedly take issue with. Fears of information overload are clearly overblown, particularly in the case of highly-educated students. Worries about too much information should not overshadow the agency of individuals in navigating online realms.

The other side of procrastination implicated in information overload is termed decision fatigue. Not only has technology increased the amount of information out there, it has increased the speed at which we handle it. Higher levels of productivity require more decisions every day for each individual. Professor Daniel Levitin suggests that we are in fact limited to the number of decisions we can make a day under sound mental judgment.

 

Too much information may be a potential source of additional stress, but it is is not the cause for reduced productivity.

In the day-to-day lives of students, it’s plain to see that there are more choices and decisions to make, ranging from food products to career paths. Levitin contends in his work The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload that the raw amount of data humanity has produced in the last 10 years is greater than the sum total we had created previously.

Greater availability of information—made obvious by the negative connotations of the word overload—actually has the potential to impair cognitive functions. There is undeniably more information for each one of us to parse through in our everyday lives, and as a result, procrastination has become a more prominent issue in modern society. The focus on procrastination has created an endless discussion and supply of articles that all claim to provide the step-by-step solution to conquering information overload. Yet despite this discourse, people are still productive. Too much information may be a potential source of additional stress, but it is is not the cause for reduced productivity.

Information overload may be what unconsciously leads students toward a ‘short’ Netflix break or a full-on downward spiral of procrastination; but most students emerge from said breaks to continue on with their responsibilities. Students are so aware of the danger posed by Facebook feeds filled with entertaining videos that they will temporarily turn their wireless connection off to get a paper written or even employ a friend to take away their cell phone until a particular task is completed. Students have adapted to the availability of distractions. The issue therefore resides not in the access to information, but how individuals manage their own responses to that information.

Procrastination and decision fatigue can clearly be problematic results of the pace at which we receive information today. That being said, students and professionals make use of coping techniques that fall in stride with Levitin’s suggestions featured in Forbes. People take breaks, write to-do lists, prioritize, and do their best to focus on one task at a time. As students paying for an education, productivity is still of a high enough importance to encourage adaptation to the challenges that accompany the ease of accessibility to a multitude of distractions.

 

  • dlavenda

    I am glad you made the distinction between ‘information overload’ and ‘decision overload’ which are clearly two separate (but often confused) topics. Info overload is real, but it’s not strictly related to productivity; it is also related to the cost/risk/fear of missing important stuff because you can’t see the forest for the trees. Just look at the recent terrorist events; the information was there – authorities just couldn’t make sense of it. That’s the real problem with too much information.

    • David – Thanks for the comment and agree that there is a distinction between “information overload” and “decision overload”. I recently purchased a new car, and the amount of information available (reviews, technical specifications, comparison sites, community forums, etc.) was vast. But to your point, I started to become faced with “decision overload” more then “information overload”. I started to have too much information and struggled to sort out relevant information to help make my decision. Whose review did I trust? Should I wait for the new model next year? Were some of the issues raised legitimate? How did what I was reading compare to my own observations? Ultimately, it was a combination of research from a few trusted consumer and automotive magazine sources, personal observations from test drives, and prior “good experience” with a dealership that helped to finalize our decision. But I could very well still be researching several months later and still trying to decide what to choose. Eventually, I had to make an effort to end the process and make a final decision.

  • Yes, Information Overload is a problem, but agree it is not as big an issue as many make it out to be.

    Everyone likes to blame technology (such as Email, the internet, social media, smartphones) for all of their information overload problems.

    But in reality, technology is not the problem – We are!

    As an example, Email has grown to become the dominant and preferred mode of business communication because it is effective, efficient, fast, and accurate. It’s a darn good communication media. The virtualization of business activities, telecommuting, and collaborative projects with those in different time zones are all made possible through the use of Email.

    But all this technology also is resulting in a high-volume of messages and constant interruptions through out day.

    This results in cognitive processing issues, including lost messages, missed deadlines, and difficulty storing and retrieving information.

    Work also becomes fragmented as a result of these interruptions, resulting in lower productivity, errors, omissions, and reduced decision making abilities.

    Yet, despite these many challenges and issues, technology itself is not the primary problem.

    Rather, it is how we use (and abuse) these technologies as communication media that is the underlying source of our challenges.

    There was a time (not so long ago) when the telephone was our primary source of personal and business communications. You would come into the office in the morning, see the “dreaded blinking voicemail light”, and listen to the messages that accumulated since you left the office.

    Your day started with reviewing all of these messages, returning calls, playing “phone tag”, leaving messages, and missing calls while being on other calls.

    Add “beeping pagers”, “fax machines”, and “overnight mail delivery” to that mix, and things were a mess back then as well.

    Sound familiar to the overload issues we face with Email today?

    (Sometimes we seem to remember the “good old days” through “rose colored sunglasses”!)

    And today, we’re seeing challenges with managing communications in the growing array of social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook), collaborative environments (Google hangouts, Microsoft Sharepoint, Hyperoffice) and real-time media (Instant Messaging, Webex, Skype).

    But we shouldn’t blame the media as the source of our issues, or give up and declare Email bankruptcy (which isn’t feasible for most in the business world).

    Rather, we need to instead focus our efforts on teaching individuals and organizations how to use the right type of media for the right types of situations.

    This includes not only technology training in how to use our tools and systems effectively, but also organizational training in how to use the tools appropriately within our businesses, and behavioral training in how to use the tools efficiently, such as avoiding distractions and improving the quality of our communications.

    The bottom line is that our focus shouldn’t be so much on the issues of a specific tool, but rather on investing the personal and organizational resources in targeted training to improve knowledge, skills, and fluency of individuals and groups across all available media types.

    To quote the famous Pogo cartoon, “”We have met the enemy and he is us.”

    Dr. Michael Einstein
    http://www.EmailOverloadSolutions.com

  • Utmost respect to the author, and to Michael, who is a co-member of IORG, but information overload DOES affect productivity.

    Technology has enhanced communication in so many ways, yet with it, has removed the bottleneck and opened up the dam…and damn…information is flooding internally in so many different ways, from so many different areas. With this, individuals require more time to process all the data, which is why a third of a knowledge worker’s time is strictly on email alone (not including social, messaging, etc). And by the way, this number is continuously growing.

    Of course, we can teach individuals to be more productive, yet not all have the capacity nor actual capabilities to be a super-human productivity master. Some do, but the majority do not. In addition, information overload will just get worse, for technology is continuing to innovate, and more and more ways of writing, sending, sharing, emailing, processing, etc of information are rising left and right. Heck, look at how many productivity apps are out there, for individuals, team colaboration, for project management, etc…are they there just for fun or trend, or perhaps because individuals (the majority and mass) cannot keep up with productivity best practices? By the way, last time I checked there are 300+ productivity best practices. Do we expect everyone
    to learn these and integrate into their daily routine?

    Let’s take a historical analogy. When individuals used to need to count, they marked lines in the sand, then on the walls, then devised tools to help such as the arithmetic toy we provide to our toddlers and children. As we’re well aware, this couldn’t last forever, and technology has brought upon the calculator to speed up calculations, as well as enable us to calculate much bigger numbers. But the calculator didn’t stop there, it evolved and evolved for additional equations, capabilities, and now it is on every single phone and in everyone’s pocket…not just accountants. The reason is because everyone needs to be able to calculate and sometimes, it is much more than a few simple calculations. Yes, 1+1 is simple, as well as how much is a 15 (or 20%) tip, but do we expect to teach everyone how to calculate their interest rate? their mortgage rate? etc?

    This brings me to Michael’s comment, we cannot teach everyone how to be a productivity master. We can provide some tools, tips and tricks to help manage their time better, to organize their daily calendar and to handle email overload to a better degree…but for the normal day-to-day individual…it can only go so far. Technology must provide solutions to process the incoming information better, help them handle it, organize it, and even answer for them with tools such as artificial intelligence, as to handle information overload across an organization, and not just handpicked superstars who can become productivity masters.

    • Oded- Never intended to imply that Information Overload wasn’t a problem or didn’t detrimentally impact productivity. Only that (my view) is that many people seem to over-stress the impact of technology as the source of all IO as compared to behavioral and organizational factors. For the past century, you could have always walked into a public library or bookstore and been subject to “information overload”. There was more information available then you could digest in a lifetime. But I definitely do agree that information is now much easier to come by due to new data sources such as cable TV, social media, and the internet. And not only the volume (amount) greater, but the velocity (speed) of that information is also greater. This can be seen by the huge amount of time spent by knowledge workers “living” in their Email system, “surfing” the Internet, and “conversing” via Social Media. Although some of this is legitimate avenues to perform their jobs, much of it is not. And often, these activities are not performed in an effective or efficient way, causing productivity loss, stress, and miscommunication.
      My research (and observations as a long-timer worker in large corporations) has found that you need to work to improve your productivity skills across three dimensions: Organizational, Behavioral, and Technological. They are part of a “three legged stool” that provides the foundational skills to be better at managing information and communication.
      My comment was just that many people seem to exclude the behavioral and organizational aspects from the equation, and simply blame the technology for their woes, when in many situations, improvements in these non-technology factors are also critical in order to improve your information and media management skills. Organizations looking to address information and productivity improvements should not simply focus on technology to solve their problems, but be sure to also incorporate organizational and behavioral training focusing on information and media competencies as well, as they are becoming an ever growing part of how we operate as corporations and as a society. Don’t get me wrong. I love technology and believe it holds the key to vast increases in human productivity. Just that it must be done along with behavioral learnings and organizational paradigm shifts as well to be truly effective.

      • Thank you Michael for the response (sorry for the delayed one from my end). I completely hear you loud and clear, and I believe we actually see the same thing from both sides:

        – Technology won’t solve it all without the individual

        – Individuals cannot solve it all without technology’s help

        It is true that information was always available, and there was always info overload, but today it is pushed to you constantly…even when you attempt to avoid it. You may be super strong and avoid it here and there, but the constant distractions, pings of new email coming in, buzz of your phone vibrating, and the red notifications of your social media are constantly bombarding…so information management is required, and this will arrive in the form of Artificial Intelligence. It won’t remove the responsibility and accountability from the individual, but in the beginning it will at least assist as an enhanced filter, to save you time and headache, as well as point you in the right direction to reduce distractions and improve focus.

        Technology won’t provide a standalone solution, but a personal assistant to help those that are affected by information overload, desire assistance, and are willing to adapt.

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