Information overload isn’t new. Starting with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, scholars and scientists have predicted that each new technological advance that made information more widely available would produce an overwhelming flood that would be impossible to manage. Centuries later, according to a report published in 2009 by the University of California, San Diego, the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of information a day. The information comes from multiple sources, often from more than one at a time, as we read email while talking on the phone or surf the web while watching television. Information overload occurs when we try to deal with more information than we can effectively process.
“We are wired to remember and use the information our eyes and ears receive,” says neuropsychologist Dr. Kenneth Freundlich of Morris Psychological Group. “But our working memory – the mental workspace that retains information long enough for us to manipulate it or use it – can hold fewer than ten items at a time. Being constantly bombarded with far more information than we can process works to the detriment of our memory, our concentration and ultimately our ability to produce timely results and make good decisions.”
Information overload takes a toll on memory...
Exceeding the limit of what working memory can accommodate erodes the efficiency and quality of cognitive function. “When we continually overload the system by trying to store too much in working memory, the brain loses some of its processing power,” says Dr. Freundlich. “Further, by overloading the circuits, we lose the important periods of inactivity that facilitate optimum cognitive efficiency. When we keep the brain too busy, it doesn’t get the rest it needs. We pay by suffering a deficit in both short- and long-term memory as communication between the two is disrupted by over-activity.”
…and on focus
Multitasking has become a badge of courage – a proof of busyness and even a source of prideful importance. Yet multiple studies have shown that workers who are interrupted by a barrage of emails, text messages, phone calls and other distractions absorb less information and get less done than those who focus on one activity at a time.
“The brain works best when focusing on a single task,” says Dr. Freundlich. “It takes time for the cognitive processes associated with one task to be turned off and a new set to be turned on. Multitasking only gives us the illusion of productivity. In fact, the more often we switch tasks, the less productive we are.” In various studies, it has been shown that it takes between 10 and 24 minutes to return focus to the task being worked on before an interruption. “The more complex the task, the longer it takes to access and retrieve the needed information from the brain’s vast storage,” says Dr. Freundlich. “It not only takes time to switch between tasks, the disruption to our attentiveness and concentration takes a toll on creativity and our ability to see the big picture.”
Taming the beast
You can’t turn off the flow of information entirely; some of it – maybe a lot of it – is important. Nor can you read and absorb it all. But you can filter information to improve its relevance and you can carve out time during which you are unavailable to interruptions and able to concentrate on your highest priority task. Dr. Freundlich provides some tips:
• Minimize interruptions: Work on one thing at a time. Set aside specific times each day to respond to email, phone calls and other messages. Let co-workers and others know not to expect immediate replies. Turn off alerts that will disrupt your concentration.
• Prioritize information flow: Take advantage of technological capabilities that filter, sort and prioritize emails, blogs and alerts based on your criteria. Weed out all but the most important information streams. Change your settings so you pull the information when you want it rather than having it pushed to you automatically.
• Disconnect: Technology is available and can claim your attention 24/7. Don’t let it. Take a break. Give your brain a breather. Step back from the constant flow of information. Taking some time to reflect will improve decision-making and enhance creativity.
“One of the reasons information overload has negative effects on our thinking processes is that it so often comes in the form of interruptions and distractions,” Dr. Freundlich concludes. “But there are ways to manage the glut, not by ignoring the information that is constantly coming at us but by ensuring that it’s relevant and that we deal with it on our own terms.”