“I’m suffering from information overload! Help! Lorna help!” The voice screeched in my ear…
I held the phone at arm’s length from my ear and rolled my eyes to high heavens.
You see, I recognized the voice and I knew the speed with which information overload could happen in her case.
“Would you be calling as a client or a friend?” I enquired of her facetiously, in my best professional voice.
“You like too much money!” she declared maliciously, which set me wondering how badly she really needed my help…
But my darling friend aside, what really is information overload? Do you suffer from it too? And Why don’t I suffer from it?
Well…you’re in luck.
Here’s your chance to get the scoop on information overload, as I unpack this problem, and share my unique perspective on how to solve it.
What really is information overload?
Well, just for the sheer heck of it, and just to be sure I knew what I was talking about, I started this post by checking with our trusted Wikipedia for a definition of information overload.
You would not believe what I found.
Then I learnt that that the term pre-dates the internet since the term itself is mentioned in a 1964 book by” Bertram Gross,” The Managing of Organizations. In this book he states: Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity.
I get that!
But my favourite definition is:
the access to so much information, almost instantaneously, without knowing the validity of the content and the risk of misinformation.
To me, this is when true information overload or data overload takes place.
So the big question is: how do you reduce or avoid information overload?
Well, here is a 5-step solution that I came up with for me and I know it can work for you too…
1. Decide what you mean by “information”
To avoid information overload, you need to determine what the concept of “information” means for you. You might not want to believe it, but it actually differs from person to person.
For example, for me, it is really raw data that has been processed in some way, so that it has meaning and use for me, the end-user. In other words, if you give me all the completed questionnaires from a survey, that’s not information to me. However, if you give me a summary of the key findings of the questionnaires, that’s information I can use.
For some other people, information is all the nitty gritty details. Do you really need to know that the cost of average cost of a new car is $50, 435. 17? Or would learning it’s approximately $50,000 do for you?
In making your determination, you should be driven by why you need the information and the strength of your analysing skills.
When you start looking for information with your needs as your guide and your analytical ability to support you, you’re well on your way to reducing any overload or overwhelm, you might normally feel.
If you’re a student, here’s an approach that you will find particularly helpful.
So decide what is information as it relates to what you want to do with it, very early in the process. This is the first step you can take in reducing in any information overload.
2. Know why you need the information
Sometimes when I ask people why they need some particular information, they look at me like I just escaped from a mental asylum. Some have even asked outright since according to them, the reason is obvious to all but the very ignorant.
But I am no more crazy than you, who cannot understand that Google is a SEARCH engine, not a RESEARCH engine.
So, with only a vague notion of what you need, you hop on Google, type in maybe “report” and get “About 13,820,000,000 results (0.55 seconds)“. Then you start clicking and before you know it, you have clicked all the way out to the number of police reports in some obscure village in India.
So I emphasize…know why you need the information.
For example, do you need it to help you come up with solutions? To write a proposal? To make a decision? Do you want it to substantiate a view you already have about something or do you just want to expand your knowledge.
If you’re like me, you want the type of information that will help you to solve problems for your clients, deliver high impact training that helps employees perform better or offer small business services which result in rapid business turnarounds.
This means that when I go in search of information, I am very focused on finding the information that helps me to do what I want to do at that point in time.
Will I come across some related but non-specific facts that are “nice to know?” Of course. But I can now “park” these and come back to it at a time when I’m just reading through stuff.
In this way, I’m not only separating the relevant from the merely interesting, I’m reducing information overloaded as well.
3. Improve your analytical skills to reduce information overload
Once you have collected data, and you know what information you need and why, now you’re ready to analyse that data in a way that it produces information that meets your need.
No! No…I am not telling you to manipulate the data so that it reveals something it should not. But from teaching report writing, I found that not having good analytical skills caused information overload and serious overwhelm.
Let me explain what I mean.
If, for example, you need the information to make a particular decision, you can first of all, sort that data into relevant areas, if your analytical skills are strong.
That’s because you can quickly and easily spot the patterns, associations and relationships thrown up by the data, which take you towards that decision in the fastest possible time.
On the other hand, without that skill, you might approach this task, maybe using topic heads, or even alphabetical order, as ridiculous as it sounds. This really is a prescription for information overload.
Not only that. When you can’t use the information to move your user logically from “findings” to “conclusions” to “recommendations”, you spend too much time mired in the information itself. And before you know it…yeah, information overload.
4. Don’t get caught in the multi-tasking trap
It really is a trap.
Many of you believe that when you’re multi-tasking you are doing several things at the same time. And you hope that this allows you to handle all the information that’s rushing at you, so much better.
What you’re really doing is interrupting one task with another. This mean that you’re not completing either task properly and both are taking longer to finish. The results: overload, overwhelm and overreacting
Here’s a solution that can work for you.
You have to remain focused so that you are not weighed down by tons of information and then be distracted from the information that you really want.
The key to staying focused is not multitasking but instead, giving your brain short periods of down time. This allows your brain to more quickly and adequately process content and this leads to meaningful, intellectual output.
This approach goes a long way towards reducing information overload.
5. Ensure your information is connected to your bigger picture
Let’s say I give you thousands of pieces of a puzzle and told to put them together in a picture. But I don’t let you see that big picture on the cover of the box, so you have no idea what the finished picture would look like.
That’s exactly what happens when you don’t connect your need for information, and the collection of that information, to your bigger picture.
When you don’t connect your need for information to your bigger picture, you’re just begging for information overload.
Not only are you all over the place with your data and information, but you fail to see connections and patterns that can help you improve your work.
Let me show you what I mean.
My bigger “information” picture is my insatiable passion to help small business owners grow their businesses by growing themselves.
This means I am constantly in search of information to help me improve my services, my approaches, my products and myself. All to help you to grow and grow your businesses.
So when I go in search of information, even for a specific need, I always ask myself “how does this information connects me to “my bigger picture?”
So what’s your bigger picture? If you’re clear on this, 2 things happen. You improve the relevance of your information and decrease you opportunity for information overload.
Your next information overload step
Listen to me…You DON’T have to suffer from information overload.
But you do because you seldom have a focused plan or a meaningful approach for handling information.
But that was in the past, right?
Because with this post, you now have 5 simple, useful tips which you can begin using right away. They will put you in charge of how you access and use information.
Furthermore, I promise you that if you apply these 5 tips the next time you’re dealing with information, you will be surprised how much you will reduce information overload.
To your information handling success…