The Truth About Information Overload

by David B. Bohl

There’s good news and bad news about “information overload.” The bad news is, you probably have some overload effect in your life. The good news is, it’s probably not as bad as everyone says it is.

There is, in fact, much more information available to us than at any other time, and that won’t be changing, except that more and more information will become available even more easily.

We can’t control the amount of information available to us, but we can control how we access information, when we access it, and why we access it.

You’ve probably heard experts in communication and efficiency say that you should check your email only twice a day because otherwise it’s too distracting.

If that works for you, that’s fine. But many of these same “experts” also say that instead of email, you should use instant messaging to communicate, because that way, if anyone needs to reach you, they can do so, and you won’t miss anything by not having your email on.


It is more “efficient” and “productive” to allow someone to pop up in your face whenever they want, than to check your email on your own schedule and deal with it when you have time?

The problem here is that instant messaging is an interruption when the other person wants to interrupt. Yes, it would be ideal if that only occurred when it’s really important, but even if that were true, who’s to say you’re not doing something just as important?

The problem with information overload is not just that we have too much information. It’s that we don’t feel in control of that information and when we receive it.

Thirty years ago, the networks used to use “news breaks” to let us know what was coming up so that we could decide if we needed or wanted to watch the news – or rather, to convince us that we did.

Now, our news comes at us constantly, not only on television but also through the Internet. People we work with can bombard us with information. We can get instant news updates on anything we want in our email.

We can’t control the information.

What we can control is our use of the technology.

The first step in controlling the technology is to determine what we want to receive and when.

If you rely on email and are comfortable with it, then by all means check your email on a schedule that works for you. You can use filters to sort your inbox so that you’re only dealing with what’s most important to you at the time.

If you must use instant messaging at work, or feel it’s useful to you, try setting up filters and “away” messages to limit the interruptions when you are busiest.

And most importantly, remember that you’re in control of the technology, not the other way around.

This week:

  • Set up filters on your email to help you work more effectively
  • Think about how often you check your email and why
  • Experiment with other times and patterns for checking your email

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