IO Basics

Key Information Overload Causes and Solutions

Information Overload (also called “information glut”, “infoxication”, or “data smog”) occurs when the information available exceeds the processing abilities of the individual in the time available.

Information Overload draws its roots from information theory and communication theory, and is a result of the massive amount of information that is available for rapid consumption that can be readily accessed through various communication channels.

The term “Overload” implies that there is too much of something, and in the case of Information Overload, it is generally the result of a combination of three key factors:

  • Too much information – So much information has been gathered that it is not possible to organize, classify, filter, and analyze it properly.
  • Not enough time – Not enough time is available to process the vast amount of information that you have collected due to multiple, competing priorities and deadlines.
  • Poor Quality of Information – Unable to determine from the information that is available which sources can be trusted as informed, consistent, and reliable sources of information for making valid decisions.

The first use of the term is attributed to Bertram Gross’ 1964 book  “The Managing of Organizations”, and was further popularized by Alvin Toffler in 1970 in his bestselling book “Future Shock”.

There are many causes that are contributing to the rapid growth of Information Overload, but here are some of the key ones:

  • The “Internet of Things” – The massive growth of  connected devices and the movement of large amounts of data to the internet and the “cloud” are creating huge new stores and channels of information being readily available to individuals and organizations.
  • Communication Mediums –  The massive growth in new communication channels (Email, Chats, videoconferencing, social media, etc.) has resulted in huge amounts of information being available across multiple, and often competing, communication channels.
  • Globalization  – As the world economies and businesses becomes increasingly global in nature, there is a growing needs for 24/7/365 communication between organizations, teams, and individuals.  This is making the old “9 to 5” day to rapidly disappear, as work demands readily cross into people’s evenings, weekends, and vacation times.
  • Consumer Expectations – Today’s consumer expects more, and expects it quickly.  Expectations for turnaround times in some businesses have moved from weeks to days to hours to minutes.  Orders must be placed in seconds, and satisfaction (and dissatisfaction) by consumers can be instantly communicated to millions of people through social media channels.
  • Worker Shifts –  A huge growth in virtual and remote working has caused individuals and organizations to have to implement and adopt new communication channels and methods for collecting, storing, and sharing information and knowledge.

An individual only has a limited ability to process information and make decisions (their “cognitive processing” ability). As a result, Information Overload can have many negative effects on individuals, including:

  • Incorrect decisions – Failing to take all appropriate factors into account in making a decision.
  • Premature Decisions –  Making decisions too quickly since they are faced with overwhelming information.
  • Decision Making Delays – Taking too long to make a decision due to the sheer volume of information that must be reviewed and analyzed.
  • Decision Fatigue – Unable or unwilling to make further decisions due to mental exhaustion.
  • Stress – Individual stress, often shown through loss of productivity, health issues, excessive sick-days, depression, hostility, and general worker and individual unhappiness.
  • Distractions / InterruptionsResearch has shown that the time it takes an individual to return to what they were doing before an interruption is often far greater than the length of the interruption itself because the brain needs time to ‘reorient’ itself to what it was doing before the interruption occurred.  And interruptions not only slow you down, they also throw you off track from your “important work”.
  • Loss of Productivity – The combination of stress, decision fatigue, and distractions/interruptions results in lower worker productivity and reduced organizational output.
  1. Turn off Notifications and Distractions – Unless you are in some sort of critical role, turn off your alerts for your Email, phone, social apps, and any other type of application. 
  2. Only Process Email or Social Media at Specific Time Slots –  Checking email or Social media every few minutes is a huge productivity killer and detrimentally impacts the quality, quantity and creativity of your work output. By assigning dedicated “email or social media times” you safeguard the rest of the day as “focus time” to think, create, and execute at your best. Yes, this is tough, but try it and you will be amazed at the results!
  3. Improve the Quality of Communications –  Ensure your communications are clear, organized, focused, and contain clear action items to specific people.  Poorly worded or organized messages can create confusion and ambiguity.
  4. Focus your Time – Implement time-bound, focused work sessions, using techniques such as “time-boxing” or the “Pomodoro technique”.
  5. Know when to Pick-Up the Phone – Email, IMs, and Texts are all helpful and fast systems, but aren’t always the right “tool” for every situation.  Avoid long “conversation threads”, and know when it is time to set-up a meeting (virtual or in-person), or to pick-up the phone and speak with someone directly.
  6. Capture, don’t act, on Interruptions – Have a system to capture and write-down any thoughts or other activities that interrupt your workflow, but don’t act on them. This way, you capture them but they won’t interfere with your task at hand.
  7. Prioritize – Have a system or process to manage your workload activities.  There are many other prioritization techniques and systems you can adopt. For example, you can use the 4Ds” system for Email processing, which stands for; Do-it (now!), Delegate-it (to someone else), Defer-it (for later, but after you capture it!), Delete-it (don’t do it at all!).
  8. “Chunk” Similar Tasks – When possible, try to do similar things together.  This lets you be more efficient by being able to use the “same frame of mind” for similar types of tasks.
  9. Don’t (even try to) multitask Multiple studies have shown that you cannot multitask, and in fact, multi-taskers are actually some of the worst actual performers, and the act of switching between multiple activities will exhaust you both mentally and physically.
  10. Take breaks – Taking a break gives your body and brain important time to “recharge”.  A change of scenery is important, and some social interaction will often trigger new ideas that may help you to solve problems when you return to work.

Here are some great articles and sites for learning more about the causes and solutions to Information Overload.