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Too Much Information — Tips for Managing Information Overload


17Jul 2011

“TMI”  (“too much information”) is a message teens and young adults sometimes send to their peers — or even their parents.  But usually it is used in the context of  “that is more personal or detailed information about that situation than I ever wanted to know.”

As is becoming more and more obvious, however, “too much information” is an issue that is affecting the quality of our lives.  There is no longer any doubt that there is far more information available and being generated than anyone can process.

But how we deal with information overload is partially related to our personality style.  Let me cite two examples.  Since no one can keep current on all the information that is out there on most topics,  those individuals who are impulsive tend to have the style of responding to the “latest and greatest” — when a new fact comes their way, they may make a decision based on the last thing they heard.  This obviously can lead to being swayed by the most current fad or “research” reported.

On the other hand, those who are more detail-oriented and who want to “get things right” can be seriously slowed down by the amount of information available to process when making a decision.  They can research and read numerous reviews, blog posts, Tweets, archived articles, and watch YouTube videos on a topic for weeks and months — and never get all of the information.  Sometimes they become paralyzed and give up.

Other strategies that people use to deal with the excessive amount of information to process include:

  • “checking in and out”. That is, they are inconsistent.  For a while, or on specific topics they may “dive in” and try to research a current interest area.  Then, they either get enough information to make a decision, or they get worn out and move on with their life (or onto a new topic.)
  • looking to “experts” to process and summarize the information for you. This can be anything from a news compiling service, to a trusted reviewer of specific information (cnet, Consumers Reports, music reviewers, etc.)
  • doing the best you can with the time you have. Sometimes we know we have to make a decision within a certain timeframe and then just use the time available to research as time allows.  (This strategy doesn’t work well for just the general flow of information and news into our daily lives.)

As a psychologist, and as a member of our current information-laden culture, let me review a few basic facts:

  1. We need to accept the fact and reality that we can no longer “keep up” with all of the information available and being created daily.
  2. We need to also recognize that not all information is of equal value.   I’m sorry but an entertainer’s momentary Tweets of what they are doing does not carry the same value as a well-thought-through report or reflection from an societal leader.
  3. We, as finite humans, have limited capacity to process information.  There is only so much we can take in.
  4. Everyone filters information, but some have strategies while others just let information bounce off of them randomly.

Let me suggest some ways to deal with information overload in your life.

First, acknowledge the reality of too much information in your life. Don’t ignore it.  Don’t act like it isn’t there.  It is and we all need to face the facts (sorry about the pun).

Secondly, identify the types of information you value and you want to intentionally expose yourself to and process. Since there is too much to process, we have to “turn off” some information sources (the radio while driving, the TV while eating dinner, Tweets and text messages updating themselves automatically every 5 seconds, music, what we read).

Third, set up a structure and a process to help you filter information, so you can process (that is, think about) the information that you view as important. Try to determine a plan of how much “news” (and what kind” you want to listen to or read.  How many words do you want to hear or read in a day (including email, texts, Tweets, Facebook entries)?  In five years, which information will be important that impacted your daily life experience and decisions?

I have a fair amount of work to do in this area.  Actually, I think we all do.

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