August 20


Avoiding Information Overload

By Scott Kraus

overwhelmed, stress

by Scott Kraus

Have you ever left your cell phone at home, only to feel a bit lighter throughout the day? It can be very liberating to not have something beep at you all day.

And if you have a smartphone, suppressing that urge to check your notifications will free up a surprisingly large portion of your cognitive functioning, such as attention, memory, and critical thinking.

Why is this? Why does such a simple device cause so much distraction?

The answer lies in the very modern problem of information overload: having too many open tasks and data at the forefront of your mind to think clearly.

Wikipedia has several different names listed for this concept, including information glut, data smog, infobesity, and infoxication.

Don’t be fooled by these cute names.

Information overload is responsible for problems in every corner of society, from C-suite executives to stay-at-home parents (and their children).

How Information Overload Kills Your Productivity (And Happiness)

Yes, you read that right. Too much information actually disrupts productivity rather than improve it.

This is because the human brain is not capable of processing information beyond a certain limit. The exact limit is up for debate, but it’s widely believed to be much less than you’d give yourself credit for. In fact, studies show top executives tend to be happier with decisions made with too much information, even though the performance was worse than with too little information.

For example, think of the last time you had to memorize a phone number without using a pad of paper. Odds are, you had to put a concerted effort into memorizing it and, even then, you may have still made a mistake.

Now think about your day-to-day, where you probably have to deal with tasks and decisions much larger in magnitude than a simple phone number.

You have to remember to contact someone. There are emergencies. Phone calls left and right. On top of this, you’re responsible for achieving ambitious long-term goals that require daily effort, but don’t necessarily come with reminders or immediate consequences for delaying.

When you make a decision, you weigh options by looking at extant information. If this information is coming in faster than you can process it, however, you will end up sacrificing much-needed processing power taking the new information in rather than using it to further explore and understand pre-existing information.

Professionals commonly complain of too much email because of this.

They spend a couple hours catching up in the morning and are completely drained before the afternoon comes around, where many executives may mistakenly schedule their ‘real work.’

This work doesn’t get finished; the executive is drained and ill-prepared for the next day of work.

How To Handle Information Overload

Managing information overload is not a single day activity, but a choice we make that alters the way we live and work to better understand the world we live in.

And with Internet communication offering the world’s knowledge literally at your fingertips, now is always the best time to start making changes towards this lifestyle.

Step One: Limit the scope of your tasks ahead of time

This simple productivity hack, used for decades by project management professionals, gives you breathing room to focus on what needs to be done.

By essentially deciding what you WON’T do, you’re giving yourself room to breathe regarding the issues you want to tackle. This is not to be confused with giving yourself slack. The cognitive power you would have used assimilating information regarding tasks that would be out of scope is now being delegated to further processing information for the task at hand.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, is infamous for forwarding his many emails from customers to employees with a single question mark in the subject header. The dreaded question mark email hounds Amazon employees as a harbinger of bad news, or work that needs to get done, but it’s really a great way for Bezos to limit his own cognitive processing.

Instead of thinking about an issue, determining his preferred course of action, and drafting an email that succinctly states the thoughts he just came up with, he simply forwards the email. With a question mark, of course.

Now he has time to think about Amazon as a whole, which has been the driving force behind their massive growth over the past few years.

Step Two: Prioritize!

Given how much more cognitive energy is required to do a single task than originally expected, you can imagine the sheer amount of work you expect to get done is significantly reduced.

That’s why it’s important to take every productivity gurus favorite piece of advice to heart: the 80/20 rule.

80% of your output will come from 20% of the tasks you complete. So by focusing your energies where you are most effective, you make sure you can take your time thinking about a conducive subject.

Step Three: Build Up Your Cognitive Reserve

Cognitive reserve is your brain’s, well, reserve. And it’s much more powerful than you’d think.

Research has shown that cognitive reserve may have been responsible for negating the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in otherwise afflicted patients.

In fact, many people contract Alzheimer’s disease later in life, never to become aware of it. These people are diagnosed with the disease after passing – much to the surprise of family members.

How does this apply to information overload? Great question.

Information overload is a condition brought on by limited processing power given too many inputs. By increasing your processing power, through memory or attention exercises, you increase your ability to handle larger amounts of information.

To build cognitive reserve, you must stay mentally and physically stimulated. Like I said earlier, it’s a lifestyle change, not a quick fix.

About the author

Scott works for Dr. G’s BrainWorks: The Brain Fitness Store & More, based in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. He writes about everything to do with cognitive wellness. You can see more of his writing at or by signing up for the newsletter.

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