Information Overload Comes from Everywhere

Does this ever happen to you? You're working on a memo, a paper, an article, or a project, and you can't find any information related to the topic?

Or is it more likely that the amount of information that readily comes to you via the Internet is just too much to handle?

If you're in the latter group, your experience is quite typical. According to a recent international poll by LexisNexis, workers around the world are increasingly overwhelmed by the amount of information they have to manage, and information overload is widely seen as a growing threat to workplace productivity. (1)

We can all sense intuitively when we're overwhelmed, but just why is that the case? What's wrong with us? Our brains have billions and billions of neurons, so why can't we handle 25 different approaches to our problem and neatly and easily cut to the core of the issue?

Here are a few factors:

We don't respond well to too many choices

1. Our brains don't like too much information. Research shows that although people like to have choices when making a decision, if they are given too many choices, they feel less happy about their ultimate decision and are less satisfied with the decision-making process itself. (2) One consumer study showed this dramatically. When supermarket customers were offered samples of 6 different types of jam, 30% of them purchased a jar of the jam. But when they were offered 24 different choices, only 3% ended up purchasing a jar. (3)

2. Our working memory is limited. Even though we can store virtually limitless amounts in our long-term memory, we can only keep a small amount of information in focus at any given time. That is why we have to key in a new telephone number immediately, or save it, or write it down. Otherwise, it will be gone in a matter of seconds. We just can't juggle dozens of ideas at the same time.

3. We learn better with spaced practice than with massed practice. We perform better if we learn something in chunks with breaks in between than if we work without breaks for hours. (4) Our brains need some time to consolidate the information that comes in before we can use it effectively.

Having too much information is like flooding your brain's engine. You can't start your car without gas, but your engine needs the right ratio of gasoline to air or the spark plugs won't ignite.

So what can we do? We're certainly not going to give up on our digital connections to the information we need. How can we benefit from the bounty the Internet offers without drowning in it?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Start from the result you want and work backward.

Let's say you have to choose between 50 job candidates, or 50 suppliers, or 50 widgets - first decide which characteristics are most important and evaluate the options on those criteria first. Leave the losers aside.

2. Make a decision about the type of information that's most important.

Everyone will have an opinion on your subject. Not everyone will have direct knowledge, credibility, or research expertise. Evaluate your sources up-front rather than wading through too many less credible inputs.

3. Organize the information along relevant criteria.

Do you remember when we used to write papers by putting information on note-cards and sorting them? We can do this electronically by saving items in folders. Keep track of what's in different folders by keeping one centralized, organized list.

4. Save your meandering for later.

Don't let yourself be sidetracked by interesting information that's irrelevant. Bookmark that enticing link and come back to it during a well-timed break.

We often can't see the forest for the trees

5) When you can't see the forest for the trees, don't plant more trees.

Step back a bit and get a better perspective—take a break, go for a walk, or talk it over with a colleague.

(1) LexisNexis (2010, October 20). New Survey Reveals Extent, Impact of Information Overload on Workers; From Boston to Beijing, Professionals Feel Overwhelmed, Demoralized.
(2) Reutskaja, E., & Hogarth, R. M. (2009). Satisfaction in choice as a function of the number of alternatives: When ‘goods satiate.'" Psychology & Marketing, 26, 197-203.
(3) Iyengar, S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.
(4) Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354-380.


About the Author

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D.

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress.

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