Overcome by Information Overload? Seven Ways to Manage the Challenge

by Diane Berenbaum

Have you ever found your mind wandering during a meeting, lecture or webinar? Then all of a sudden, you realize you have no idea what was just shared or what response they’re expecting from you? Or, did you ever start to write an email, but were distracted by a call, text or well-meaning associate? If so, you’re not alone.  

Our minds can wander in an instant and move onto a multitude of topics or to do’s. Research shows that we think at over 2,000 words a minute. So, imagine all the thoughts we can have while someone else is talking or while we’re daydreaming for just a moment.

“Humans are naturally prone to interruption,” says Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. We feel a need to react to every bit of new information, to prove we’re responsive and helpful. However, that often leaves us feeling overwhelmed and overstressed. 

But, according to Daniel Anderson, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, “If your attention is being broken constantly, you actually have to mentally reconstruct what you’ve been thinking. You’ve lost precious seconds and you may have also lost fundamental insights.”

So sometimes, the problem is within us.

The Impact of Information Overload

More data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of the human race. And, data is growing faster than ever before. By the year 2020, about 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second for every human being on the planet. 

Equally important, information overload has some deleterious effects. According to a study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, adult minds are not focused on what they are doing 47% of the time. And, when their minds were wandering, they reported being less happy.

Jonathan Spira, director and vice president of Research for the Information Overload Research Group (IORG), also found that this “condition”:

  • Causes people to lose their ability to manage thoughts/ ideas, contemplate, and even reason and think  

  • Results in workdays that never seem to end

  • Destroys work/life balance

  • Results in a minimum of 28 billion hours lost each year in the United States

  • Leads to a loss of eight hours for every 100 people who were unnecessarily copied on an email

  • Causes 94 % of people to feel overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation

Any sound familiar? Chances are this is bad news for individuals, and many companies are still in denial about it. 

“If your attention is being broken constantly, you actually have to mentally reconstruct what you’ve been thinking,” says Daniel Anderson, a professor in the department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts. “You’ve lost precious seconds and you may have also lost fundamental insights.”

What You Can Do

Most of the time, the problem is within us. So, what can you do to stay focused, and where do you begin? Here are a few suggestions:

1.    Get rid of the clutter

  • Leo Babauta, suggests that you declutter your mind first. Focus on simple actions that are almost guaranteed to have a positive effect. Little things can make a big difference. For example, identify the essential and where you need to focus…right now. Eliminate things in your life that are not necessary or important to you. Go slow, and declutter your surroundings. I’m well aware of the clutter in my office, and I’m working on it!  

2.  Shift your self-talk

  • We can be easily distracted by what we say to ourselves during the day. And many times, those statements are negative; e.g., “I can’t do this,” “I’ll never get this done on time,” “I’ve got too much to do and too many emails,” and so on. So sometimes, we contribute to the “problem.” Just shifting those messages from discouraging to encouraging can make a dramatic impact. They help improve our concentration and focus, and increase our productivity and effectiveness as well.  

3.  Focus in five to ten minute blocks

  • Practice focusing in small blocks, and see if you will reach a point where it gets easier to stay focused on task and to refocus without too much hassle. If you get started, you can accomplish more than you think with an extra 15-20 minutes every now and then throughout the day. Don't wait for large blocks of time to get started or you may never get to it.

4.  Don’t be tempted by distractions; Get better at refocusing 

  • Emails, phone calls, associates walking into your office—they all can derail your progress and productivity.  We all get distracted; it’s hard not to when bombarded.  But what matters is how.  William James, American philosopher and psychologist, noted that “our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to.”

5.  Use proper email etiquette and read your messages before sending 

  • Be sure every email is clear, concise and relevant to the audience. But, don’t burden your readers with one-word replies such as “Thanks!” or “Great”—they have enough emails to read and write. They may get frustrated with this pattern, and ultimately let you know it in another email or another way.

6.  Practice meditation

  • A University of Wisconsin-Madison study, published in the journal PLoS Biology, showed that meditation can help. Volunteers went through three months of training in Vipassana meditation, a Buddhist medication that quiets the brain and uses mindfulness to attain happiness and see life clearly. Afterwards, when faced with distraction, the volunteers proved better at completing certain complex tasks.

7.  Commit to managing information overload

  • Below are five commitments that will help you (and your associates) better manage your personal overload situation:

  • I will not email someone and then immediately follow-up with a phone call.

  • I will not include multiple topics and requests in a single email.

  • I will make sure the subject line of my emails clearly reflect the topic of my message.

  • I will read my emails before sending them to be sure they are clear and concise.

  • I will not send unnecessary messages such as one-word replies like “Thanks!” or “Great!”  And, I will use “Reply all” only when absolutely necessary.

Don’t let information overload strangle your organization’s productivity. Ninety-four percent of those surveyed felt, at some point, overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation. And, research shows that for every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an email, eight hours are lost!

Jennifer Senior, writer for the New York Times, noted that “We are what we choose to focus on, the sum of our concentrations”. So, what will you choose to pay attention to and focus on today?
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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