Information Overload

Information Overload

Fighting data asphyxiation is difficult but possible ... by William Van Winkle

Data is like food. A good meal is served in reasonably-sized portions from several food groups. It leaves you satisfied but not stuffed. Likewise with information, we're best served when we can partake of reasonable, useful portions, exercising discretion in what data we digest and how often we seek it out.

Unfortunately, we often do the opposite, ingesting information constantly to the point of choking on it. The risk of information asphyxiation touches all of us -- managers, Web surfers, even lazy couch tubers.

The most obvious locus of information inundation is the office: e-mail, voice mail, phone calls, meetings, business journals, faxes, memos, manuals, Web research. The list goes on. Far from bringing about the anticipated "paperless office" and reduced work load, technological innovations have increased both areas.

David Shenk, in his book Data Smog, reports that between 1980 and 1990, paper consumption in the U.S. tripled to 1,800 pounds per person. Sixty percent of the average office worker's time is spent processing paper documents. Additionally, "the typical business manager is said to read one million words per week." That's the equivalent of one and a half full-length novels per day.

Diminishing Efficiency

Information technology, in fact, often diminishes workplace efficiency. Scientific American ("Taking Computers to Task," July 1997) pointed out that despite the $1 trillion spent annually across the globe, "productivity growth measured in the seven richest nations has instead fallen precipitously in the last 30 years ... Most of the economic growth can be explained by increased employment, trade and production capacity. Computers' contributions, in contrast, nearly vanish in the noise."

Blame can be pinned on everything from sound cards to solitaire, that numbing front-desk babysitter.

Also at fault, however, is the medium and people's lack of training in how to effectively use it. When employees use e-mail to communicate with someone 50 feet away, there's a problem. Saving customer quotes in a general "user" directory is just asking for the document to become lost among hundreds of other files. Inefficient inventory software yields frustration where a simple list on paper would do the trick.

Outside the Office

The problem continues even outside the office. A Sunday edition of the New York Times carries more information than the average 19th-century citizen accessed in his entire life. Billboards smother our roadways and buildings. In some cities, advertising is even stuck to the sides of police vehicles. (Imagine a patrol car advertising a "run for the border.") Cable and satellite TV offer dozens of channels of meaningless drivel. The check-out line at the supermarket proffers a host of magazines "educating" the reader on such wide-ranging issues as "10 Ways to the Big O" and new photos of a biblical ark discovered on Mars.

We accept all this input with a tired, sometimes even curious, smile.

Information Fatigue

David Lewis of the International Stress Management Association originated the phrase "information fatigue syndrome." The barrage of data to which we are constantly exposed carries a cost, both physically and mentally.

In many ways, it is a bona fide addiction. I can live without the Web for a week, but I start getting antsy after a single day without checking my e-mail. At night, I read constantly from the dozen or so periodicals to which I subscribe while my wife channel surfs.

This is our relaxation time? My spotty memory and short attention span are notorious to all who know me. I feel tired constantly, despite regular exercise, yet continue thinking about the day's information load all the way to unconsciousness.

David Shenk sites psychological studies spanning thirty years and lists several of the symptoms which accompany information overload:

  • Increased cardiovascular stress, due to a rise in blood pressure,

  • Weakened vision, siting a Japanese study which predicts a nearly universal near-sightedness in the close future,

  • Confusion (see below) and frustration,

  • Impaired judgement based upon overconfidence,

  • Decreased benevolence to others due to an environmental input glut (which may very well account for part of the "brusqueness" which is commonly attributed to big-city dwellers).

There is a common piece of wisdom which holds that any given fact can be twisted to fit one's needs. Witness the nutrition dilemma. Based on this week's reports, is milk good or bad for us? The answer, of course, depends on whose report you read. There are so many conflicting reports emerging constantly that one is left not knowing what to believe, a condition sometimes referred to as "paralysis by analysis."

This phenomenon may account for some of the decline in American health. Angelo A. Alonzo, a professor of medical sociology at Ohio State University, told USA Today Magazine (October 1994), "Health educators may well face a significantly desensitized population, segments of which are immobilized by fear, indecision, and confusion." When there is no clear method for improving our lifestyles, many adopt the course recommended most often by our mass media: fast food, material consumerism, and apathy.

It is not enough to flee from the problem. Researchers at Israel's Tel Aviv University studied 76 electronics industry clerks and found that the sense of relaxation and happiness derived from a vacation began to fade only three days after returning to work. Pre-vacation levels of stress and burn-out returned within a mere three weeks (Journal of Applied Psychology, August 1997). For those who remain "in touch" via pagers, cell phones, laptops, radio, and TV, the results will be even more dismal.

On a society-wide level, the dangers of information overload are enormous. The engendered feelings of helplessness, confusion, and anger will erode work efficiency, family functioning, and most likely increase crime rates. We will lack the information-processing skills needed to elect responsible leaders or counter the myriad waves of propaganda pushing our dollars this way and that. (Of course, the argument could be made that this has already happened.)

If an individual's consciousness is formed by the information and stimuli he experiences, then the influence of data glut on our thinking is undeniable. Buy our food, says the McDonald's ad, because "it's not your fault you had to get up this morning." In accepting this, a media-programmed individual gives up responsibility for his independent actions and is more susceptible to suggestion.

What To Do

So what is to be done? The situation is not at all hopeless. Just as we require food, we similarly need information. The critical thing to remember is that we still have control over the information in our lives. Following are some suggestions on how to exercise that control in the different areas of our day. Overall, the maxim to live by is, "decrease quantity, increase quality."

  1. At the office

    • Be careful with your phone time. Don't tolerate sitting on perma-hold, listening to elevator music and even more stupid radio commercials. Leave a short, efficient message which indicates precisely what action you want taken and move on. Remember: when in doubt, hit 0 for the operator. A recent Reuters survey found that 20% of all voice-mail time is spent fumbling through menus.

    • Reduce paper. An old boss of mine told me to touch a piece of paper only once. Either use and file it or toss it in the recycle bin. To help facilitate this, switch to a fax/modem instead of a regular fax machine. There is no paper involved, and the "delete" key really can be your best friend.

    • Get organized. CorelCENTRAL or Microsoft's Outlook are good examples of utilities which will structure your time, clear your desk of neon sticky notes, and maybe even consolidate your fax and e-mail functions. Also check out 3M's electronic Post-It program, a marvelous jewel which will do wonders to clean your desk.

    • Keep meetings short, sweet, and focused. Make it known from the outset what your time limitations are and confirm beforehand the presence of a constructive agenda. I can't count the number of precious home hours I've lost to a company-bought pizza and managerial meandering.

  2. At home

    • Kill your television -- or at least make it hard to use. Some families keep just one TV and leave it in the closet except for occasional viewing. Before sitcom stupor sets in, ask yourself, "Is this a good use of my time?" Even television news is mostly fluff designed more to sell commercials than to educate the public. Weather and commercials now account for half of each hour's broadcast. The U.S. Department of Health and Human services has published findings that TV might actually cause learning disorders (really?!), so try instating a family reading time instead.

    • Keep your phone number unlisted to reduce solicitation calls.

    • Sick of junk mail? Contact the Direct Marketing Association (P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale NY 11735) with your exact home address along with all the permutations on your name currently in use by junk mailers. Ask to be removed from all the direct mail lists with which they are associated.

    • Prioritize your phone time. It's taken years, but friends and family have learned to call me with planned discussion items and then not take it personally when I shove the call to a conclusion.

    • Develop a hobby. Many of us feel that we don't have the time or talent for a hobby, or maybe that was something our parents did -- and God knows we don't want to be like them. A hobby, however, besides having its own inherent rewards (not to mention a second possible source of income) will take time from otherwise wasteful brain drains like TV. Exercise can be viewed as a hobby. It may take an hour out of your nightly rerun ritual, but think of the extra 20 years of health you gain on the backside.

  3. On the Net

    • E-mail can be a virus in its own right. Only drop your address (especially on Usenet) when essential, because software robots will see it and automatically add you to marketing lists. Respond to junk e-mail messages indicating that you wish to be removed from the mailing list or else you will contact the sender's Internet provider (usually Also, you can usually tell which messages are worth your time just by scanning the header. Dump the extraneous ones. Respond to non-important messages as infrequently as possible since correspondence tends to increase exponentially. Finally, take 30 minutes to download and install a good spam filter from Tucows.

    • Newsgroups can consume your life. I used to lurk and contribute in half a dozen groups. Today, I only visit Usenet for research, targeting specific answers and ignoring all other conversation threads.

    • Beware getting stuck in that tangled Web. The inescapable banner advertising is bad enough, but with 70+ million pages to muddle through, every Web user should master effective search techniques. I recommend Take ten minutes and learn the Boolean search terms. 10,000 hits may sound like a gold mine, but odds are that with a narrowed search you'll find your best nuggets in the first 10.

    • Remember the library! When doing research, you may save innumerable hours forsaking the Web altogether and logging into your local library's server. Many counties (including Multnomah and Washington) provide free access to Magazines Online (MO), a searchable, up-to-date database of hundreds of periodical articles. MO often alleviates the need for costly magazine subscriptions, endless Web searches, and, at the very least, a lot of photocopying. In researching this article, the Web was virtually useless while MO supplied over a dozen valuable references.

    • Use your printer. I know this conflicts with my earlier statements about saving paper, but it's so easy to become distracted by enticing link after link. When you find information that you need, print it. This saves both on reading time and the need to find the page again later. Of course, if you have the discipline to set up effective hard drive directories, saving such Web pages is a better solution. Simply saving a page won't allow you to keep graphics, though. I recommend using a program like Folio's Web Retriever, which not only will save a page's graphics but archive an entire site.

About the Author

William Van Winkle ( is a Portland-area freelance writer who specializes in topics like personal computing, technology's social impacts, and the many effects of sleep deprivation, a field in which the author has much experience. He enjoys playing guitar, hiking, reading, South Park, and -- of course -- sleeping. E-mail to

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