Since the advent of smartphones and social media we’ve been asked to deal with more and more information in our everyday lives, and not just at work – people process on average 100,000 words every day in their leisure time. No wonder that “information overload” is a term being heard more and more often.
Information overload occurs when we can’t deal with information at the same pace as we’re receiving it. Our attention doesn’t have a fixed threshold – it varies not just between individuals, but within individuals as well, depending on their age, their health, and on the situation that they are in. Shifting attention between different tasks (and this is the point at which I stress that “multi-tasking” is rapidly switching between tasks, and not continuously paying attention to several things at once) is one of the most energy demanding brain activities.
Most of us aren’t air traffic controllers, the classic example of a job that requires accurately shifting attention between tasks, and correspondingly an example of jobs where breaks are strictly enforced due to information overload. The use of social media however, and deciding whether to post and whether and how to respond to other peoples’ posts, is an example of shifting attention, and as such can use up a disproportionate amount of our cognitive capacity.
The psychologist George Miller suggested in 1956 that most people can pay attention to “seven things, plus or minus two”. In fact our capacity is really nearer four than the range of five to nine, and ‘trivial’ decisions, such as whether to ‘like’ a post or comment on it, take up just as much mental capacity as weightier decisions.
This is at the same time that our increased access to information means that employers, friends and family have increased expectations about the speed and quality of our responses to them. This is the point at which addressing information overload becomes a matter of choosing more carefully the tasks and issues that we become involved in, and behaving more assertively.
Recognising that you only have limited time and mental resources to apply means that you need to reduce your exposure to some of the information that demands your attention, or fundamentally change your relationship to it – so either stop checking your Twitter feed as often, or decide that you’ll look at it for information, with no thought of responding or engaging with it.
It also means paying attention to the larger life decisions you need to make and then deciding whether you can make them now or if you need more information. Deciding what to do and when helps with information overload as organising and writing down information clears the mental space involved in mental rehearsal. The increased mental space also frees up your mind to engage in daydreaming, which is where the more creative solutions to our problems originate.