We like to know what’s going on. Eighty-seven percent of respondents to a December 2014 Pew Internet and American Life survey said that the internet and mobile phones help them learn new things, and 72% like having access to so much information.
But the information onslaught comes at a price, experts say. Information overload—trying to take in and respond to too much information—can cause forgetfulness, fatigue, and difficulty with focus, says psychologist and attention expert Lucy Jo Palladino, PhD, author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload.
"We can listen to all of these motivational gurus who tell us we have unlimited potential, but the brain is a physical structure. It runs on biochemicals called neurotransmitters," she says. When those neurotransmitters are depleted because we overextend them, we run out of fuel.
Experts like Joe Robinson, founder of Optimal Performance Strategies, a work/life balance and performance consultancy, and author of Don't Miss Your Life: Find More Joy and Fulfillment Now, agree those outcomes are real, along with increased stress and anxiety from trying to process too much information. He also points to a Microsoft Canada report that finds human attention span has shrunk to eight seconds—a second less than a goldfish’s attention span.
So, how do we keep our information intake at manageable levels to guard against these ill effects? A combination of awareness, vigilance, and a few good tools can help.
It’s a myth that we’re at the mercy of an unending onslaught of information. Actually, we make choices about where we direct our attention every day, says neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, PhD, a psychology professor at McGill University. Sometimes, we just need to be more selective about where our attention goes.
Take a week and log how you spend your time. You’ll likely be surprised at how much time you’re spending on certain tasks. Look at areas where you can cut back on unnecessary information intake, such as excessive social media, email, or other digital information intake. You don’t need to read every political diatribe, watch every cat video, and know what Game of Thrones character you are.
Turning off the faucet of information requires deciding those things to which you will—and won’t—pay attention at any given time. Time blocking can help, allowing you to focus on like tasks for periods of time without interruption, Robinson says.
Palladino recommends giving certain tasks a time limit, especially those like doing online research, which have a high risk of dragging you down the distraction rabbit hole. Use a timer to ensure you don’t veer too far off track. Tools like Freedom can also be helpful in blocking sites that are particularly tempting or addictive, she says.
Levitin uses Google Alerts for various subject areas in which he’s interested, so he can keep on top of the latest news in his areas of interest without having to seek out the stories on various websites. That helps reduce unnecessary information intake. But it’s not all business—he also keeps on top of his favorite musicians’ news and other personal interests, as well.
Another obstacle to those who wish to remain well-informed while cutting back on unnecessary information is the proliferation of sources filled with rumors, half-truths, and pseudoscience. Levitin says the internet has led to a Faustian bargain where we have limitless information, but we can’t always be sure what’s true, he says.
In his new book, A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age, Levitin makes the case for developing "infoliteracy"—understanding the hierarchies of source quality and bias that distort the information we take in—as a skill to guard against information overload. When we apply critical thinking to outrageous claims or unsubstantiated assertions, we can more quickly overlook or dismiss information that doesn’t meet a basic credibility standard. This can reduce both the information overload as well as feelings of stress and anxiety that come from such bad information. At a minimum, look for stories, websites, and other media that cite their sources by name, use science and studies from well-known and respected entities, and provide balanced reporting on the topics that matter to you.
Over the years, our communication styles have trained others in our response habits, so we may need to retrain peers, employers, and colleagues in order to lighten our information load, Levitin says. If you’re someone who checks email every few minutes and responds immediately, you may feel as though you have to do so, but that’s usually more pressure we're putting on ourselves than a real need for on-demand answers.
Draw boundaries with email correspondents about when and what you’ll be reading. For example, you may advise them that you’ll be checking email at specific times of the day and to expect responses then. If people are sending you extraneous information or communicating too frequently, you can gently explain or remind them that you’re trying to cut down on email volume. You don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but many people can relate to the need to cut down on email, he adds.
When we don’t put boundaries on interruptions, especially the ones that take us away from more important tasks, we may eventually have trouble controlling our impulses and allow other addictive behaviors to flourish, Levitin says.
One big offender is push notifications—beeps, vibrations, and other advisories that let us know when a new email, text, or other communication has arrived—that further add to our compulsion to take in too much information, Robinson says. "You get to the place where you can’t regulate your impulses, not just with their habit of checking messages, but for any habit they have, whether it’s Sara Lee or Jim Beam," he adds.
Most multitasking is bad for you. It's not possible to perform two functions that require cognitive thought at the same time and do them both well, Levitin says. Distractions and multitasking reduce productivity, increase mistakes, and contribute to information overload. So, stop.
It may feel like a 15-minute break will put you 30 minutes behind, but taking a real break—stopping to eat lunch, going for a walk, or otherwise getting away from your desk to recharge—can increase your productivity, Levitin says.
The good news is that you can retrain yourself to be more selective about information intake and regain your focus. Resist the temptation to read everything that crosses your screen immediately, set some boundaries, and take back control to improve everything from your memory to your mood.