Business Law

Information Overload

Jackie Kilberg | |

Jackie Kilberg has been information professional for over 25 years. She has worked for PWC and is currently a research associate and corporate archivist for The McGraw-Hill Companies. You can contact Jackie through LinkedIn

As I have gotten older, it is more of a challenge to concentrate especially on long term projects. Constant interruptions with email, RSS alerts, instant messages and phone calls not only break my concentration but it is getting more difficult to resume the task at after these interruptions. I thought to myself, it's not my age, it's all this technology. The more technology invades my life the more distracted I become. I believed this line of reasoning until I read a recent article by Katy Read on attention deficit disorder in my husband's AARP Magazine.

As professional librarians we are masters in managing information overload but how good are we in handling information fatigue syndrome? (That's a term that psychologist David Lewis coined in 1996 to capture the detrimental effects to mental and physical health caused by information overload.) The more we age the more we are vulnerable to this problem, Read notes, observing that "small blockages to the blood supply increase in the brain which causes a drop in nerve signaling chemicals" just make it harder to ignore distractions.

She goes on to discuss the work of Swedish neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, M.D., Ph.D. "For older people, a natural decline in working memory—where events are recorded temporarily before being filed or discarded—may aggravate the situation . . . . When working memory shrinks, you can find yourself shifting from chore to chore (without finishing any of them)."

Other conditions can develop from information fatigue syndrome such as continuous partial attention. This occurs, according to Linda Stone, blogger of The Attention Project, when we are motivated by a desire to connect and be connected. Nicholas Carr argues that we are sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet. Carr, who wrote, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” claims the mere existence of the online world has made it much harder (at least for him) to engage with difficult texts and complex ideas. "Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words," Carr writes. "What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Symptoms of information fatigue syndrome according to Dr. Lewis include the following:
  • increased anxiety
  • increased stress
  • sleeplessness
  • "analysis paralysis”—increased self-doubt in decision making
  • elevated blood pressure
  • cardiovascular stress
  • digestive disorders
  • lethargy
So how does one handle information fatigue syndrome? I really don’t think anyone can but I have found the following coping mechanisms to help me try to keep it at bay:
  • Do not check email at home in the morning (or at night for that matter). You need to wake up, drink some coffee, and get yourself ready for the day. If you can not get yourself in order at home, you will not be able to at work either.
  • Do not check email going to work. I have seen too many people almost get hit by a car walking when using their Blackberrys or almost hit when using them in their car. Distraction should not cause the loss of life or limb.
  • Don’t check email in the elevator. You are going to see all your tweets and instant messages at your desk in 60 seconds. Do you really need to demonstrate how addicted you are to your iPhone?
  • Follow your to-do list which you wrote the night before leaving the office. The list should include checking email, RSS feeds, blogs, LinkedIn posts, tweets etc. I strictly follow mine when I first fire up the PC. For me, the process takes about 45 minutes and I respond to what I deem as a priority. The rest I leave for 30 minutes in the afternoon. If I don’t have the time, I ignore them permanently.
  • Focus on a project for one hour without interruptions. Do not answer the phone. Shutdown email and close the browser unless you are doing online research. Make sure you avoid chasing links. Stay focused on your main objective, completing the project.
  • At night, work on a project or hobby that is not business related, whether it is joining a book club, doing crossword puzzles, reading novels or blogging. Focusing on one project increases concentration. Try to keep outside noise at a minimum.
  • Do not work on vacation unless your boss threatens dismissal or you have no back-up at the office. Do your best to limit your access to once every few days.
Sources for this blog post and recommended readings:

Carr, Nicholas G. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic. Jul-Aug. 2008.

Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Ellington, Virginia Beth. "An Analysis of Information Overload Components, Sources, Frequency, Effect on Performance and Coping Strategies Utilized by Full-Time Undergraduate University Students." Thesis. School of Library Information Science of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, 2005. Dec. 2005.

Jackson, Maggie. Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2008.

Klingberg, Torkel. The Overflowing Brain Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

Read, Katy. "May I Have My Attention Please?" AARP Magazine. July-Aug. 2010.

1 comment:

Julius Vision said...

Wonderful and insightful post.