How Can You Deal With Information Overload?

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We're often bombarded with information of all kinds from every direction, leaving us stressed, anxious and fatigued. How can we better cope with this ongoing information explosion? How can we sort the helpful from the wasteful?

How Can You Deal With Information Overload?

Do you have a stack of journals, magazines and books on your desk that you really should read, but haven't gotten to?

Ever feel frustrated because you don't know how to use features on your cell phone, laptop or PDA?

Are you concerned that your job marketability is declining because your industry knowledge is getting out of date—but you just don't have time to take the classes to stay current?

Do you often find yourself in conversations with others who bring up events in the news you're unaware of—and you feel embarrassed admitting you don't know what's going on?

If you answer "yes" to any of the above questions, you're experiencing information overload!

It's a common malady these days, stemming from the rapidly increasing quantities of information being produced and published.

Let's consider the ever-widening scope of this problem, its impact on us and some ways to deal with it in our personal lives.

An explosion of information

According to researchers at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Information, mankind has produced more information in the last 30 years than in all the previous 5,000 years combined. They estimate that in just the last decade, the total of human knowledge has doubled every two to three years. Soon researchers believe knowledge will double every year.

As the amount of available data expands, managing the information becomes more difficult. "Most people today have more information coming at them than they can ever assimilate and process," observes Deborah Barreau, Ph.D., associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"If we're trying to make a decision, we often have so much information that we get confused, and we don't know what to do. At the same time, we're expected to be knowledgeable about more and more things to function in our society."

This state of having too much information to digest is known as information overload. Almost everyone suffers from it to some degree. It can cause stress, anxiety, fatigue, frustration, reduced productivity, an inability to concentrate and feelings of being overwhelmed and overburdened—eroding work efficiency as well as personal health and family life.

"There are only so many details in anyone's life that can be handled comfortably," Dr. Barreau says. "When that limit is exceeded, circuits begin to shut down. We refuse to process any more."

Information overload is not a totally new phenomenon. Ever since the printing press was invented in the 15th century, making it possible to distribute written information to the masses, people have been complaining that there are too many published materials to get through.

"By the late 19th century, there were already more books in the average American library than anyone could possibly read," notes David Levy, Ph.D., professor at the School of Information at the University of Washington. However, he adds, "information overload is a far greater problem today than it ever was in the past." This, he says, is directly related to technology—in particular, the advent of the computer.

Information overload—21st-century style

Before the invention of modern computers in the 1950s, information was produced in very sedate increments. Once computers became available, data could be compiled and analyzed at speeds never dreamed of before. Modern computers also allowed scientists to utilize computer modeling and simulation techniques, which greatly accelerated the scientific discovery process. Scientists could now conduct their research on the computer, which yielded faster results than doing traditional laboratory experiments. This caused information production to soar.

But that's not technology's only impact. The modern computer, and accompanying growth of the Internet starting in the mid-1990s, have allowed information to be duplicated, published and accessed by just about anybody. "The World Wide Web has provided us access to billions of pages of information, increasing the number of people whose thoughts we encounter and exposing us to more ideas than ever before," says Lark Birdsong, an information professional and Web search trainer in Denver, Colorado.

Anyone who wants to can start a blog or Web site or share their perspectives on online forums and chatrooms. If it's information you want, you can sit down in front of your computer and do a Google or Yahoo search and, within seconds, be presented with hundreds, thousands or even millions of search results to weed through. Of course, a lot of the electronic information we're being inundated with isn't information we're necessarily seeking.

And our home or work computer's stationary Internet connection is not the only way this inundation comes to us. Modern communications technology has given us cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players and wireless Internet connections for our laptops, allowing us to be connected to information sources wherever we go and whenever we want it. Each day you may have potentially hundreds or even thousands of e-mail messages, instant messages, RSS feeds, podcasts and audio clips, YouTube downloads, text messages and posts on social and professional networking sites to read, watch or listen to—all competing for your attention.

"All of the computer-mediated communication—instant messaging, chatrooms, social networking sites, text messaging—while they're not 'information' in the traditional sense, have really intensified the problem of information overload in recent years," Dr. Barreau observes. "Much of the social messaging is relaying really trivial information, like your friend posts a status update on Facebook about where she is going for lunch today or what movie she is going to see. But it can be so easy to get caught up in all that."

Facebook is the largest social networking site, with more than 400 million active users worldwide, who share more than 25 billion pieces of content (news stories, Web links, notes, photos, posts, etc.) each month. Hundreds of other such sites are targeted to specific life stages or interests.

Anthony Rotolo, professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, specializes in social media. What he finds particularly interesting is that "more and more people are accessing this information 'on the go' from their mobile devices, rather than being tied to a computer. That information is coming at us 24/7 and being integrated into our daily routines."

Not only that, but, he adds, "whether it's academic or work information, the news, or seemingly irrelevant social information from friends, it's all happening in one spot—your mobile device. This constant bombardment is adding tremendously to the feeling of information overload." 

In addition to electronic communication, all the "traditional" information sources continue to vie for our attention. That includes magazines, newsletters, journals, newspapers, reports, books, letters, direct mail, faxes, memos, video teleconferencing, phone calls, voice mail, radio and television programs, DVDs and CDs. Considering this tidal wave of data coming at us, it's clear that the concept of keeping up with it all is illusory.

"The sheer volume of information being published today far outstrips our capacity to deal with it," Dr. Levy says.

The road to overload

Excesses of either type of information—the factual kind ("book knowledge") or the social information coming from electronic communication—can lead to information anxiety. Exactly how does it happen?

First off, it's important to state that information in and of itself is not a problem. It can be wonderful to connect with friends on social networking sites. And obviously we need information to be able to earn a living, make wise decisions and take care of our families.

Proverbs:18:15 tells us, " The heart of the prudent acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge." Proverbs:24:5 similarly says, "A wise man is strong, yes, a man of knowledge increases strength." God wants us to use our minds and develop our abilities.

The stress comes in when we feel like we're not well enough informed about the various situations we confront on a daily basis, or when we try to keep up with all the information coming at us and can't. So you may feel nervous discussing certain business topics with your boss if you haven't had time to keep up with all the trade magazines and books recently published related to your field.

You may be upset with yourself for not making the move you should have with your stock portfolio, and the reason you didn't is because you didn't have the time to watch the financial news to keep up with the latest statistics. Or perhaps you are having difficulty staying on top of the technology you need to use at work or at home, and that is causing you angst.

The demand to be informed is relentless. "Changes are continually being made to technological innovations, adding to the pressure of what else we need to learn about," observes Dr. Levy. "The rate of technological change has never been faster. If you're going to use technology, you have to always be learning in order to stay up on it."

Of course, Levy adds, if you buy the newest version of your word processing software, it can seem like a waste of time to read the manual and learn about all the features because the next version will probably be considerably different. 

You've got (too much) mail

Some people become stressed because of the dozens or even hundreds of e-mails they receive each day (and that's after their spam filters deleted the ones that were junk!), and each one needs to be answered.

I know one parent who feels guilty because she doesn't have time to read the 30 or 40 e-mail updates she gets on average each week from her kids' teachers. She has two teenage sons, each with seven teachers.

"Every teacher sends out at least one e-mail a week explaining what they're doing in class. Usually there are study guides and handouts sent as attachments that the teachers want us to go over with our kids," this mother related. "But I am already so busy with my job. I don't have time to deal with extra e-mails, so I don't usually read them. But I do worry that I'm letting my kids down, because they're not getting the extra help from me."

One other cause of overload is that so much of the information we encounter, particularly on the Internet, is either irrelevant, simply personal opinion, or outright false. Trying to filter through all the "fluff" to get to the information we really need can be an overwhelming task.

It can be difficult to discern bias and point of view, know which Web sites are trustworthy and which ones aren't, and assess the validity of information being presented. Not everyone has the skills to devise effective Internet searches. You can end up with a lot of duplicate or conflicting information, or you might have to go through many, many pages of search results before you find something useful.

You encounter some of these same challenges in other media too. Consider television, for example. It's become a much more complex medium than it used to be.

"A quarter century ago there were only a couple of TV channels, and people would tune in every night to listen to one source, Walter Cronkite, and he would tell you the way it is," says Rotolo. "But in this environment, with hundreds of cable and satellite TV channels broadcasting around the clock, there is no longer one trusted source of information. And when you have urgent and sometimes conflicting messages coming in from multiple TV channels, how do you know which one to believe? More often than not, you can't know."

Efforts to cope with the uncertain quality of our information supply and conflicting "facts" can result in information anxiety, fatigue and confusion.

The time factor

Some believe the real problem with information overload is lack of time. If we do attend to everything directed at us (because we think that's what is expected of us!), or if we allow ourselves to become addicted to the Internet or to the endless pursuit of information (it does happen!), that can take away time from more important priorities.

"There is a lot of pressure to stay informed about what your friends are doing, what's going on in the world and what's happening in your profession," Dr. Barreau observes, "but there is not so much pressure anymore for people to have time to sit down and quietly think and reflect."

She takes her dog on a walk every morning, and says she "can't help but notice all the people who are talking on their cell phones while they're walking. We don't even feel free to be able to take a few minutes away from our technology." Having some downtime is important for our emotional and mental health, not to mention to be able to think deeply about the larger issues of life, such as why we are here and where we are going.

Barreau is also dismayed when she sees people dining out, with several either on their cell phones or focused on their Blackberries rather than conversing with their friends or family members at the table. "It makes other people feel like you are shutting them out—and you are," Barreau says.

She says people are spending increasing amounts of time "interacting" with their technology (during their downtime, away from work), which is coming out of time that used to be allotted for socializing with friends and family. Compare this trend to a generation ago, when sociologists were expressing concern about family members spending their evenings staring at the TV. Now the concern is that family members are at their own laptops, surfing the Web and reading e-mail, with each one in their "own little world."

Dr. Levy shares the same concerns. Additionally, he's worried about what all the technological interruptions are doing to our workdays. "All the e-mails and text messages are very distracting, waste a lot of time, and are destroying our productivity at work," he states.

In recent years, he's met with many professionals from various fields, who tell him they feel dissatisfied with their careers. In a nutshell, it's because they feel they don't have enough uninterrupted time to do as quality a job as they would like.

There's a similar trend in academia. Dr. Barreau's students often send "tweets" (posts on Twitter) and text messages to each other while she lectures the class. She says not only is that behavior disrespectful, but "their attention is divided, and they're not getting as much out of class."

"Most people don't multitask very well," she notes. "We generally deal with things better sequentially rather than trying to do three or four things at once." However, she adds, for many people, multitasking and having constant interruptions is becoming the "normal" way to function.

Our most important priority

Ultimately, information overload can distract us from the most important priority in our lives— our relationship with God. Indeed, a healthy relationship with other people, especially our family and fellow Christians, is an important part of our relationship with God Himself. And, of course, it's vital that we have frequent time alone with God in prayer and studying His Word. 

Nearly 3,000 years ago, King Solomon, whom the Bible states was gifted with wisdom more than any other person, understood mankind's proclivity for information overload. In Ecclesiastes:12:12 he cautioned, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh."

While there were no mass-market publishers back in Solomon's day, still a good number of books were being written. As is true today, there were some back then who let the pursuit of secular knowledge become their top priority. Solomon saw that you could study countless numbers of books and still feel unsatisfied with your life—if you let the pursuit of physical knowledge steer you away from God's truth and a relationship with Him.

About 500 years later, the prophet Daniel was informed through an angel that an unprecedented knowledge explosion would occur in the last days. He wrote, "Many will rush here and there, and knowledge will increase" (Daniel:12:4, New Living Translation). The Hebrew word used here for "increase" implies not just an addition of knowledge, but a multiplication of knowledge that is growing exponentially— certainly a fitting description of our day .

This prophesied knowledge explosion, however, was referring to an increase in secular information, not a better understanding of God's truths.

In 2 Timothy:3:7, the apostle Paul told Timothy that in the last days many people would be "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." How aptly that describes our society! While there has been a boom in physical knowledge, the knowledge of God and His way of life certainly appears to be decreasing!

In recent years, Gallup and other polling organizations, along with the American Bible Society, have conducted surveys about Bible readership. All have reported that Americans and other Westerners are not reading the Bible as much as they used to—and consequently know less and less about it. Yet that is the kind of "information" this world needs most! It is only God's eternal truths that can solve the enormous problems facing our world.

There are probably many factors leading to the decline in biblical literacy. This article has alluded to one of them: As a society, we have become so overloaded with the "cares of this world" that they are choking our spiritual lives. Mark:4:19 describes this condition in the parable of the sower, and the person so afflicted "becomes unfruitful."

God's warning to the nation of Israel more than 2,700 years ago is another that rings true today: "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea:4:6). Again, the destruction was a matter of the people lacking and not seeking spiritual knowledge. With the amount of stress, frustration and fatigue so many people are contending with today, we can already see this destruction happening to some degree. These are certainly sobering warnings, for very serious times.

The antidote to information overload

The crucial thing to remember is that while information overload is a widespread problem in our society as a whole, it need not take control over your life. So what can you do?

• For starters, take an honest assessment of your priorities. Are you so wrapped up in pursuit of secular knowledge or an online social life that you have no time left to dig deeply into God's Word? Are you routinely using your PDA or laptop when you are with friends and family? If your priorities are misaligned, be willing to make the necessary changes.

• Plan for only one time each day to check e-mail, social messaging sites, chat rooms, etc. Don't allow yourself to check multiple times—unless you truly are waiting for an important e-mail. Each time you go online, you run the risk of being pulled in, and that eats up your valuable time.

• If you are being barraged with too many electronic interruptions during the weekday, ask people to call or text you during work hours only if it's a genuine emergency. Otherwise they—and you—end up stealing time from your employer.

• When you need to do some Internet research, be willing to ask your reference librarian for help. Most librarians are happy to educate people about Internet search techniques, which will help you get better refined search results and waste less time.

• Remind yourself that it's okay to not know everything. In fact, it's impossible to keep up with the pace of the information superhighway. The sooner you accept that, the happier you'll be. Know what's worth knowing and what isn't, and be willing to fall behind on the information that really doesn't matter.

• If there are critical features of your computer or other technology that you don't know how to use, look up the appropriate information online, get help from the tech support desk at your local computer store or sign up for a workshop at your local community center. Don't worry about the applications you don't use.

• Set aside a regular time each week where you and other family members do not use any kind of electronic media technologies, including television. It could be something you do every Sabbath, or perhaps an hour or two every evening. "'Unplugging yourselves' will give you time for family, for reflection or to just unwind," Dr. Levy says. 

• Finally, no matter how busy you get, make time for some Bible study every day. Keeping your mind focused on God's Word will help you to filter all the information that's coming at you on a daily basis—and to know what's important to address and what isn't!  GN

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