How To Get A Handle On Information Overload, Part 1

It’s all around us!

  • The endless noise in airports, public places, restaurants, offices, and waiting rooms.
  • Continuous data streaming over movie channels, websites, smartphones, social media channels, and millions of apps.

We are stalked by non-stop noise and information trailing us wherever we go. And there is no escaping it!

Will it slow down?

No, not anytime soon…if anything, it’s picking up speed.

And because of it, most of us complain of information overload.

It’s mind-boggling…

Experts say the information generated in a single day is more than we can consume in a lifetime.

So don’t feel bad if you’re plagued by overwhelm from time to time because you’re not alone!

Overload and overwhelm are everywhere today.

Filter Failure?

For me, there’s no question we live with information overload. But not everyone thinks the problem is too much information…

According to author Clay Shirky, the problem is filter failure. Here’s the exact quote: “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure!”

And I must say I like his point of view; it’s refreshing and spot on.

Everyone has the option to exercise control over what to read, watch, or listen to. But it seems most don’t exert any control over what or how much information they consume.

So here you have it, two sides to the same problem.

One camp identifies the problem as too much information. The other camp views it as a lack of necessary filters, filters that could help us cut down on information overload.

The Challenge

But regardless how you look at the problem, we all face the same dilemma:

  • How do you live with this barrage of information?
  • How can you avoid the overwhelm that comes with it?
  • And what you can do to maintain focus in this non-stop information generating world?

Let’s tackle the challenge in two steps…

Today, we’ll look at how the constant overload of information affects us. Is the problem truly as bad as we’re told? And what’s the day-to-day impact, if any?

And next week, we’ll discuss what you can do about the problem. What steps can you take to resolve the dilemma? What can you do to reduce overload and overwhelm in your life?

Information Overload

To be sure we’re on the same page let’s be clear what we mean by information overload.

According to Wikipedia, “information overload is the term used to describe the difficulty of understanding an issue and effectively making decisions when one has too much information about that issue…”

In the most basic sense, information overload simply means there is too much information coming in at all times, leading to a set of predictable problems.

Analysis Paralysis

When there is too much data, we tend to go into analysis paralysis. In other words, when there’s too much information and too many choices, we get paralyzed and tend not to do anything at all.

We get stuck and end up not making any decisions because processing all the data becomes too overwhelming.

So projects stall and come to a halt because decisions get shelved. When there is too much information, people become paralyzed and find it difficult to move forward.

Now imagine for a moment…

You’ve just finished a delicious meal. The waiter comes and tells you about their fabulous house desserts: Cheesecake, Tiramisu, Apple Crisp, and Custard.

But if that’s not for you, he’ll be happy to bring you the menu, and you can choose one of their other amazing twenty-six desserts.

Now, this may not be the best of examples….

Myself, perhaps like you, would simply pick one of the house desserts (apple crisp for me any day!).

Because choosing from the selection of house desserts would be far simpler for me, instead of picking a dessert from the list of twenty-six. And if it’s too much trouble, I just might forget desert altogether.

…as I said, this may not be the best example, but I think you get the idea. 


We all have to deal with interruptions throughout the day; some external and some created by ourselves.

Interruptions come in many forms. There are the interruptions from co-workers or employees needing just a “quick minute” of our time. Then there are phone calls, emails, social media notifications, and more.

Every interruption, no matter how small, takes time and attention away from us.

Bottom line is this… all these interruptions lead to a loss of productivity. Because every time you’re interrupted, it takes time to get back into the flow.

Current estimates are that once you’re interrupted from a task, it may take up to five minutes of recovery time for every 30 seconds you’ve been interrupted.

Now, you do the math!

Think about how many times you allow yourself to be interrupted by others and how often you break your own flow!

It’s outright scary!


Juggling too much information taxes your working memory and lessens your ability to focus.

While most of us think we’re good at handling a number of tasks all at once, usually that’s not the case; it’s far from it.

Multitasking, or switching from task to task, is simply another way of saying that you:

  • allow yourself to be interrupted by others, and
  • break your own focus and concentration

More often than not, results are the same. Your ability to focus on a task and bring it to completion is diminished.

Consequently your output, your productivity is less than what it could be if you wouldn’t try to do a number of things all at once.

And if that’s not bad enough…

When you multitask, you work with less focus and attention. Therefore it’s not uncommon for projects to take far longer than they should.

If you were to focus on one project at a time, chances are you’d complete it faster, perhaps even with fewer errors. 

In Summary

While there are other consequences to living and working with information overload, these three affect us the most on a day to day basis.

And if we don’t take steps to shield ourselves from too much information and too many interruptions, our performance and output will suffer. Over time our personal lives will be impacted as well.

In the article next week, we’ll take a look at what steps you can take to combat the ongoing overload of information. So stay tuned!

Now let us know how you deal with information overload; drop us an email or leave us a comment below.


By Johanna Hofmann, MBA, LAc; regular contributor to the NPBusiness blog and author of “Smart Business Planning for Clinicians.”

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