by Kenneth Freundlich, PhD.
The average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words a day.* It comes from television, video, radio, phone, print, and computers, often from more than one source at a time, as we read email while talking on the phone or surf the web while watching television. The term “information overload” was coined by futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970 but the concept isn’t new.
Starting with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, scholars and scientists have predicted that each new technological advance that made information more widely available would produce an overwhelming flood that would be impossible to manage. Centuries later, the digital revolution has made those earlier predictions seem quaint as the stress of managing the onslaught of information has become a fact of life in our high-tech age.
Information overload occurs when we try to deal with more information than we can effectively process. We are wired to remember and use the information our eyes and ears receive.
But our working memory – the mental workspace that retains information long enough for us to manipulate it or use it – can hold fewer than ten items at a time.
Being constantly bombarded with far more information than we can process works to the detriment of our memory, our concentration and ultimately our ability to produce timely results and make good decisions.
Exceeding the limit of what working memory can accommodate erodes the quality and efficiency of cognitive function. When we continually overload the system by trying to store too much in working memory, the brain loses some of its processing power and we lose the important periods of inactivity that facilitate optimum cognitive efficiency.
Keeping the brain too busy means it doesn’t get the rest it needs.
We pay by suffering a deficit in both short- and long-term memory as communication between the two is disrupted by over-activity and interruptions.
One of the reasons information overload has negative effects on our thinking processes is that it so often comes in the form of interruptions and distractions. We try to manage the disruption by making multitasking an accepted necessity in our busy lives, even a skill to be admired.
Yet multiple studies have shown that workers who are interrupted by a barrage of emails, text messages, phone calls and other distractions absorb less information and get less done than those who focus on one activity at a time.
The brain works best when applied to a single task.
It takes time for the cognitive processes associated with one task to be turned off and a new set to be turned on. And the more complex the task, the longer it takes to access and retrieve the needed information from the brain’s vast storage.
Various studies have shown that it takes between 10 and 24 minutes to return focus to the task being worked on before an interruption. So multitasking only gives us the illusion of productivity. In fact, the more often we switch tasks, the less productive we become. And we lose more than time by frequent switching between tasks. The disruption to our attentiveness and concentration takes a toll on creativity and our ability to see the big picture.
What is a Brain Supposed to Do?
You can’t turn off the flow of information; some of it – maybe a lot of it – is important. Nor can you read and absorb it all. But you can take advantage of technological capabilities to filter and prioritize information to improve its relevance and you can carve out time during which you are unavailable to interruptions and able to concentrate on your highest priority task.
Managing the glut doesn’t mean ignoring the information that is constantly coming at you. It means ensuring that it’s relevant and that you deal with it on your own terms.
* “How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers”, University of California, San Diego, December 2009