woman eating an ice cream cone
While these six tips won't completely eradicate information overload in your business life, they will give you some breathing room PHOTO: Przemek Więch

According to the latest Nielsen Total Audience Report, US adults spend almost 11 hours a day consuming media. That translates to 70 percent of waking time. 

Which means you spend 70 percent of your day on your computer and phone using social media, apps, browsing web pages, and of course, ‘doing’ email.

Information Overload Takes a Toll

All this time spent on the screen translates to a lot of information that you need to process on any given day — often, more than you care to see. While you are trying to get things done, you are also being pummeled by annoying app notifications and messages.

These interruptions not only slow you down, they also throw you off track. Research has shown the time it takes to return to what you were doing before the interruption is usually far greater than the length of the interruption itself. And that’s because the brain needs to reorient itself to where it was before the interruption.

The cost? Not only do you work slower, you are also more tired and stressed out.

Screen time translates into information overload and interruptions make it worse. But where does the root of the problem lie and how can we reduce overload without going off the grid?

Information Overload Comes in 3 Flavors

Overload implies too much of something — but when it comes to information overload, what that something is, is not so simple to define. 

Information overload comes in three flavors:

  • Too much information
  • Not enough time
  • Poor Quality of Information

1. Too Much Information

The simplest case is where there is too much information. This is a situation “when there is so much information that it is no longer possible effectively to use it.”

Examples of this kind of overload include working on data-intensive projects that incorporate binders and binders of information, endless computer files and millions of email messages. In this case, even if you had all the time in the world, trying to find the information needle in the data haystack would pose a problem.

To combat this type of information overload, try these two tips:

  1. Set up email rules to redirect emails which CC you to a secondary email folder, so they don’t clutter your inbox.
  2. Use email filters to eliminate annoying, unnecessary emails.

2. Not Enough Time

The second kind of information overload problem is not having enough time to process the information at hand.

A prime example of this is an emergency room at a hospital. When a patient is wheeled in, the doctor needs to figure out what to do, and quickly. The doctor may have a chart of vital signs and a few symptoms: not a tremendous amount of information, but even these few facts need to be processed instantaneously. This kind of pressure creates a feeling of information overload.

In a business situation, this type of information overload occurs when people are distracted. You may not have a lot of information to process, and you probably aren’t under the same tight time constraints, but it is very hard to focus because you are constantly being interrupted. Trying to stay on track creates the feeling of overload.

Overcome distractions and interruptions with these two tips:

  1. Set aside time for deep work. Research suggests that focus and concentration peaks in the late morning, so start your day with work that needs concentration before being sucked into the email vortex.
  2. While we are on the topic of email, turn off email alerts during the day, so they don’t distract you. Remember: the amount of time needed to recover from interruptions is often far greater than the time of the actual interruption. While you’re at it, turn off all alerts — from social media, news outlets, email, Skype — you name it. You will save far more time than you imagined.

3. Poor Quality of Information

The last kind of overload is a common one in business situations. This is when you have a hodge-podge of irrelevant and redundant information — more than your brain can handle effectively.

In this case, you probably have all the information you need and you have enough time to process it, but the information is spread out across email, apps, web pages, documents and a host of other places. Because information is not organized in a uniform manner, it is cognitively taxing to piece together the shards of information and figure out what is relevant. For example, each information source may use different names for projects or products.

Improve information quality with these tips:

  1. Reduce the number of information channels. Try to focus on one tool for each task. For example, if you share documents, try to standardize on one product, like Dropbox, Box, G Suite or OneDrive. If you communicate using chat, try to standardize on Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack or Hipchat. This will alleviate the burden of toggling between multiple apps, trying to stay on top of things.
  2. Focus on one anchor tool where all notifications appear. For most people, this is email. Direct apps to send notifications to email so that you don’t constantly have to go checking for updates. While this will increase your email load, at least you won’t have to continuously toggle between apps to stay up to date.

Failsafe? No. An Improvement? Yes

While these tips won’t completely solve your information overload problems, they can certainly improve your quality of life in the meantime. 

Artificial intelligence-based technologies are coming that will intelligently aggregate different apps. They will go a long way to alleviating the issue of information overload, which is sorely needed. Because the number of apps and the amount of information are only going to continue to grow.