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Information Overload
9 Steps to Combating Information Overload
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AnnaMarie Houlis image
AnnaMarie Houlis, Journalist & travel blogger

It's your first day at a new job and your new manager sits down with you to go over your responsibilities. She hits you with a laundry list of a million and one tasks for the day, without giving you a second to write it all down. You're sure you're going to forget something or, at the very least, screw up the order of priorities for the day. You were simply given too many tasks at once.

You walk into a conference full of new people making uncomfortable small talk. Your colleague with whom you came introduces you to about half of them, since they've been to this conference in previous years. You're taking names and shaking hands left and right, and it's all well and good on the outside except for the fact that, on the inside, you know that you most certainly are going to forget all of those names. You were simply told too many names at once.

You're meeting a client to go over their needs and expectations for a project you're working on together. You shift through the piles of papers on your desk to find that client's folder, because you've got a ton of client projects at the moment. When you meet the client, you realize that you left some of the papers behind and mixed some up with another client's paperwork. You simply are juggling too many projects at once.

It's called information overload: too much too fast with too little time to think straight.

What is information overload?

Information overload is that feeling when someone shares far too much information with you (or you take in too much information in another way, like reading) that you can't possibly compute it all. Instead of comprehending what they're telling you (or what you've read), you're left feeling overwhelmed — which, of course, leaves you to remember very little of what you actually did take in.

In his article for the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), “Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions,” Joseph Ruff explains that, when you are bombarded with too much data, often, your ability to process that information has passed its limit. The surplus of information, of course, can affect your performance since you can't be on top of your game when your mind is a mess.

In fact, you probably feel exhausted because of the mental load. That's not uncommon — information overload can lead to information fatigue syndrome. Information fatigue syndrome's symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following, according to Workplace Psychology:

  • Poor concentration as a result of literally overloading the short-term memory
  • Polyphasic behavior and/or multitasking that often results in diminished productivity
  • Hurry sickness, which is defined as the belief that you must constantly rush to keep pace with time
  • Pervasive hostility that can lead to a chronic state of irritability or worse
  • Habituation or over-stimulation, so your brain shuts down and enters a trance-like state
  • “Plugged in” compulsion, or the strong need to stay “in touch”
  • Stress as manifested by decreased immune response, endocrine imbalance, depression and feelings of burnout

How do you beat information overload?

In Venus in Arms, author Criss Jami writes: “In the age of technology there is constant access to vast amounts of information. The basket overflows; people get overwhelmed; the eye of the storm is not so much what goes on in the world, it is the confusion of how to think, feel, digest and react to what goes on.” 

What do you do when you're confused on how to think, feel, digest and react? The first step is to try your best not to let information overload affect you in these ways.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent and beat information overload if it happens to you. If you're feeling at a loss in a mumble-jumble of thoughts, and you're not sure how you could possibly come out of this feeling, just breathe.

Here are nine ways to prevent and beat information overload.

1. Practice active listening.

Practice active listening when someone is sharing a lot of information with you. This requires you, as the listener, to fully concentrate on and respond to what is being said to you. This means that you need to unplug for a few minutes and be present in the moment — your mind always wanders but, when it does, recognize it and bring it back to where you are. Really listen.

2. Ask questions when you fear you've missed a piece of information.

If you think you've missed a piece of information, politely ask the person to pause and repeat. You don't want them to get too far ahead because, if you've missed one thing in the middle of it all, everything thereafter becomes difficult to grasp, too. Make sure you're fully engaged in the conversation the whole time by clarifying when necessary. 

3. Play mind games to help you remember the information.

Play simple mind games with yourself in order to help you remember an excessive amount of information. For example, if you're trying to remember a lot of names, relate those names to something that's more memorable. If you meet a woman named Brielle, and Brielle has blonde hair, you can remember that the blonde woman is Brielle because blonde and Brielle both start with the letter b. 

4. Make a prioritized to-do list (and check it off).

Make an actual to-do list of the tasks at hand. There are tons of to-do list apps out there that you can use. And if you don't want to download an app or use a web version of one, you can simply buy yourself a journal and jot down your lists on your own. When things are written down in a clear and concise manner, it seems far less intimidating than the mess of information in your head. And when you can actually check off items on your list, the satisfaction is unparalleled.

5. Slow down, and take mental breaks.

Remember that it's important to take mental breaks. If you speed through your work and don't take a second to breathe, you might be doing more harm than good. Moving to quickly and without much thought can take a toll on your performance, so even if you feel like you're being extra productive, you might be doing a worse job that'll require second efforts later on.

6. Ask for help.

If you need help, don't be afraid to ask for it. You're only human and, if someone shares a lot of information with you, it's sort of inevitable that you may need some help — even if that's just help clarifying a task or remembering a priority. It's better to ask for help and get something right than to pretend like you've got it together and mess something up. Asking for help is, simply, more professional and more productive in the long run.

7. Be kind to yourself.

Be kind to yourself, no matter what. Again, you're only human. It's important to treat yourself well, firstly, because you deserve it. And it is important, secondly, because if you are even more stressed out than necessary, you'll forget even more. Don't stress yourself out more than you already are — if you follow the steps on this list and breathe your way through it, you will eventually get through the information overload.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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