If you came of age during the 1990’s, as I did, then you remember a time before there was widespread internet access.
You also remember the sense of amazement you felt at how much information was available to you thanks to these new things called “search engines”.
Those were the good ol’ days. Before information overload. Before we were connected to everyone and everything all the time through our smartphones.
Now we’re all drowning in information. Texts, status updates, chats, news, buzzes, dings. Information overload can be a truly overwhelming experience.
So, what’s the solution? Going off the grid isn’t an option for most people. You still need to be able to communicate with your coworkers and family, as well as stay at least somewhat aware of what’s happening in the world.
In this guide, we’re going to explore strategic ways to deal with information overload. The goal? Feeling less overwhelmed and scattered.
What Is Information Overload And What Causes It?
Information overload happens when your brain is exposed to more information than it can process. Information overload happens when you encounter so much information that you can’t really take any of it in.
Your brain’s natural tendency is to sort and organize all incoming information, which is very useful in many situations. Before you cross the street, you look both ways, and your brain processes whether it’s safe for you to cross.
However, the explosion in the amount of information we encounter every day has made this sorting and organizing process difficult for our brains. We struggle to understand all the information and sort it appropriately.
Aside from confusion and poor comprehension, information overload ultimately leads to poor decision making. When you’re constantly bombarded with a huge amount of information, but don’t understand 90% of it, it’s almost impossible to use it to make decisions that better your quality of life.
On top of all this, information overload has a significant impact on your productivity and ability to stay focused. When you’re constantly bombarded with notifications, texts, chat messages, and emails, you end up in an almost constant state of multitasking.
Linda Stone coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe the state created by information overload. She notes:
In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in. This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER? How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.
To state the obvious, when you’re always in a state of continuous partial attention due to information overload, it’s pretty tough to get meaningful work done.
Ways To Beat Information Overload
Thankfully, beating information overload is possible, and you don’t have to abandon technology to accomplish it. You do need a strategy however, as well as discipline. Let’s look at strategies for curbing the amount of information coming at you.
1. Create A System For Organizing Incoming Information
How you treat and interact with incoming information plays a significant role in whether or not you suffer from information overload. While totally unplugging may be the easiest solution, the reality is this is rarely possible for most people, especially if you’re at work or are expected to answer calls, messages, or emails at any point during the day.
In light of this, to combat the surging tide of information you need a system for “triaging” the information that is coming to you. Use these questions to help you evaluate and organize information coming into you.
Is the info immediately relevant to you?
You probably receive a lot of information every day that’s not immediately relevant to you. It may be an email thread that you’re CCd on in an effort to keep you up to date on a situation. Or maybe you’re part of a Slack channel where general information is posted that isn’t necessarily related to anything you’re working on.
As you process through the various streams of information coming your way, determine whether each piece is immediately relevant to you. If it is, you can determine what action you need to take, such as saving it or responding to it.
If it’s not, you can ignore, delete it, or save it for future reference.
The key point here is to not just let something sit without doing anything. When you do that, things start to accumulate and it becomes harder and harder to process everything. So, for example, if you get an email that you’ve been CCd on but don’t need, get rid of it. Don’t let it sit there, taking up a bit of your attention every time you open your inbox.
Is there a task associated with it?
Whenever you receive new information, you need to ask yourself if it requires action from you. The action can be anything from simply responding to a question from someone to adding a new task to a project.
If the information requires immediate action, like an email from your supervisor asking for an update on an important project, then do it in the moment. If it doesn’t require immediate action, add it to your task list and tackle it at the appropriate time.
David Allen, creator of the Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system, recommends immediately doing any tasks that take five minutes or less. Anything that takes longer than five minutes should be added to your task list.
Obviously, you don’t have to follow this rule religiously, but it can be a helpful guideline for dealing with tasks coming your way.
Will you need this in the future?
If you’re like most people, you probably have a lot of information just sitting in your various “inboxes”, like emails and voicemails. Allowing these things to sit in your inboxes without dealing with them can contribute to a feeling of information overload.
If something isn’t relevant to you and there’s no task associated with it, you need to determine whether you’ll need it in the future. If you won’t, then get rid of it. The more “stuff” you can clear out, the easier it will be to deal with new information as it comes in.
2. Beat Information Overload By Reducing The Amount Of Incoming Info
Changing the way you interact with incoming information is a powerful tool for combating information overload. If you can reduce the amount of information you’re exposed to everyday, you can even more effectively deal with what you do receive.
The reality is that we don’t need a huge amount of the information we get every day. If you’re going to conquer information overload, you need to be okay with not “keeping up” with everything.
Writing in the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman notes:
There are millions of information sources we could, in theory, keep up with, but only a few that we tell ourselves we must—and the distinction’s pretty arbitrary.
I try to answer all personal emails, but I don’t worry about answering all personal Twitter messages. The pile of books-to-be-read on my desk glowers at me, but I never feel anxious about the vast amounts of reading matter waiting, undiscovered, on the web. So why not fight irrationality with irrationality?
Here are some ways you can reduce the number of information sources you encounter every day.
Unsubscribe to email lists
One of the simplest ways to reduce the amount of information coming your way is by removing yourself from email lists you no longer care about or have an interest in.
Obviously, you can click the “unsubscribe” button for every email you don’t want to receive. There are also tools, like Unroll.me that allow you to unsubscribe en masse from email lists. One thing to be aware of with these tools is that some collect data from your emails and use that data in various ways. If you use one of these tools, make sure you’re aware of how they use your data.
Create email filters to automatically route emails
Most email services, such as Gmail and Outlook, allow you to create custom filters that set rules for how your email client handles incoming messages. These filters make it easier for you to process the emails you receive every day.
For example, you could create a filter that routes every email coming from a specific domain name into a specific folder. So if you want to first look at emails directly related to your work, you put all the emails sent from company email addresses into an “Important” folder.
Sanebox is a helpful time management tool for creating filters and routing emails.
Turn off notifications
The most effective way of reducing notifications is by turning them off entirely. Go through the apps on both your smartphone and computer and mute all unnecessary notifications. During periods when you want to get significant work, consider muting all notifications, including things like email, text, etc. After you do your important work, you can process the information you’ve received in batches.
Mute unnecessary chat channels
If you’ve used chat applications like Slack, Telegram, or Discord, you know how many notifications you can receive, especially if you’re a member of many different groups, channels, or servers.
Thankfully, you can mute specific channels so that you’re not notified every time someone posts in them. Consider muting all channels that aren’t directly relevant to you and then processing messages in batches at specific points during the day. For example, you may be part of a “General” Slack channel where team members post things like personal updates, links to check out, etc. These types of channels can be muted and you can respond if necessary at a later point.
Reduce your news consumption
The number of news outlets available these days is staggering. Moreover, the number of mediums through which we can consume news and current events has grown significantly in just a few years.
Instead of trying to constantly stay up on the news with multiple apps, podcasts, newsletters, etc., choose a few reputable news sources and rely on them primarily for news. For example, if you’re interested in marketing and entrepreneurship, you could sign up for one or two high quality newsletters, like The Hustle or Marketing Brew.
Use Freedom to block Facebook, Reddit, etc.
Managing how you interact and manage incoming information is only half of the solution. The other half is how you manage your own behavior.
It doesn’t matter how many notifications you turn off or how good you are at ignoring incoming information, if you can’t stay away from information-heavy sources.
If you feel you lack the willpower to stay away from Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, or Reddit every 15 or 20 minutes, consider using Freedom to block these types of websites. By physically preventing yourself from accessing these websites, you reduce the amount of information you encounter every day and can focus on doing great work.
3. Choose Digital Minimalism
In his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life In A Noisy World, Cal Newport asks people to consider which digital communication tools add the most value to their life. He argues that instead of a large number of digital communication tools and methods, we should only choose those that are essential and truly add value to our lives.
For a detailed guide to digital minimalism, read our post Digital Minimalism: The Ultimate Guide.
4. Totally Unplug At Times
Sometimes there is no better way to unwind and reduce information overload than simply unplugging for a few hours. Whether you spend this time relaxing, going on a hike, spending some time with friends/family, the point is to give yourself a break from the constant barrage of notifications, messages, and information that has become the norm.
Of course, how long you choose to unplug is up to you and your schedule, but taking time to step away from technology will help you regain a sense of mindfulness and well-being that we all need from time to time.
Less Is More
When it comes to dealing with information overload, a less is more mentality is needed. Most of us have unconsciously adopted the idea that we need as much information as possible in order to successfully navigate the world. But we really don’t. We need much less than we think we do.
As you reduce the amount of information you receive every day, you’ll find yourself less stressed, more at ease, and with a clearer head.