How to Deal with Information Overload

Admit it: you’ve been there. You’re researching and learning and finding information, but you feel as if you’re digging yourself into a hole. There are conflicting opinions and conclusionless debates, and you don’t know what advice to take or what to believe. The worst part is that you genuinely want to do the right thing. You want to find what actually, truly works and run with it. Yet no matter how much you read and watch and listen to, the clarity you were looking for when you started this discovery process just isn’t coming to you, and you just end up being more confused than you were when you started.

You have a nasty case of information overload – or, what I like to call researchitis.

In this guide, we’ll discuss information overload, how information can sometimes be a bad thing, and how to handle analysis paralysis that results from information overload. Let’s dive in.

The Surprising Cost of Information Overload

Want to know what’s ironic about information overload? Most of us who are overloading ourselves with information think we’re being productive. We’re learning, after all. What’s more productive than discovering what you don’t know? Yet information overload paralyzes us into a state of inaction, and if we don’t use the information that we’re learning immediately, we lose up to 75% of that information from our memories and brains, making all of the information we’re taking in nearly useless. Studies show that on interruptions alone (just one small aspect of information overload) costs the workforce over $1 Billion annually. Consider what that does to you as an individual. In the workplace, information overload has a scary negative impact on productivity, work satisfaction and the company’s performance as a whole. Do you think it’s any different for your personal work? Information overload in your own life can cause:

  • Analysis paralysis: How often have you wanted to take action on something but have become overwhelmed with the information being thrown at you? You become paralyzed by all of the options, opinions, and conflicting information being thrown at you.
  • Productivity Issues: When we’re researching and absorbing information, we’re telling ourselves that we’re being productive. Because it genuinely feels as if we are! But you’re only being productive if you action what you’re learning.
  • Lack of Focus: Information overload through social media, email, and any number of dozens of causes is the biggest enemy of focus. If you can’t focus on a task, it takes far longer to get done. So writing an article that should have taken an hour turns into a four-hour project.
  • Our Inability to Be an Effective Teacher: Have you ever noticed that the best teachers are new to the concept they're teaching about? If you’ve ever asked an expert to share how the stock market works, for instance, they will probably become flustered. It just works in their minds, and it’s difficult to explain how. They know too much. Teaching requires breaking things down to their basic core, and we do this best when we’re novices at an idea or concept.

As Herbert A. Simon says, “…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. With all of this.. new information about information overload, you might be wondering: At what point are you consuming too much information? How do you know the line between too much and not enough? I’m arguing that you already have the information you need to get started. Anything that you consume from this point until you finish a specific project crosses over the line into “too much”. And once you start feeling overwhelmed or unsure of which direction to take, you've taken in too much.

How to Deal with Information Overload When You Are Paralyzed by Data

You’re in too deep. You’ve already taken in too much information and now you’re paralyzed by analysis paralysis. There are just so many opinions and studies and pieces of rebel information floating around in your brain that you don’t know which ones to focus on.   This can bring you to a stand-still. We've all been there. Here are the things that have worked for me when I've experienced information overload.

1. Restrict The Experts You Follow

Instead of getting caught up in analysis paralysis from not knowing which expert to follow, make a general rule for yourself: Find ONE expert that you respect. One that you would like to emulate – whose career you admire and body or work you find compelling. And then default to their findings over others. No one person has all the answers. If you're trying to become a better writer, follow somebody whose writing you love. If you're trying to learn about email marketing, emulate somebody who's email marketing campaign you admire. But if you take this approach and accept that the person got where they are by using their tactics, it will clear up a lot of strife for you. All of the tactics different people teach probably work. Anything can work for somebody. But if you cut out all of the other noise and focus on just following one or two expert opinions and teachings, it will clear up a lot of strife for you.

2. Get Some Distance

Once you've already caught a case of researchitis, it's difficult to untangle yourself from all the information you've already taken in. So sometimes, you just have to get some distance. Instead of trying to figure out what to do with it all right this moment, take a step back. Walk away and work on something else, or get some distance from your project in another way. When I've struggled with information overload, I've found that changing direction and letting my project lie for a little while – maybe 2-3 weeks – has given me some new perspective.

3. Do an Experiment

The cause of analysis paralysis is information overload. But AP’s cousin is fear. We are paralysed into inaction because we’re scared we will take the wrong path. We don't want to fail. We are afraid of wasting time, or of judgement from others, or letting ourselves down. In an experiment, there is no failure. Just hypothesis to be tested. So start looking at your project as an experiment. You can't fail if you're testing hypotheses. You're just proving one wrong or right. So choose the most compelling believable option available and start testing. As you begin to test, you'll find whether the option works for you. If it does, you can stick with it. If not, move on and try the next way.

4. Go on an Information Cleanse

When you’re dealing with researchitis, sometimes the best thing to do is just go on an information cleanse. Think about the purpose of a food cleanse. You go on a cleanse to reset your body's functions – it's like spring cleaning for your body. Information cleanses are the same. The purpose of an information cleanse, according to Kyle from Startup Bros in Episode 6 of the Unsettle Podcast, is to reset your relationship with information and shift it from consumer based to creator. Take a break from absorbing any new information – including any that seems irrelevant to what you're working on. Put yourself in a position so that your only option is to create or action the knowledge you already have. After all, you have more than enough knowledge. You just have to act on it.

5. Stop Compulsively Learning

Spinach is good for you. In fact, it's one of the best foods on the planet for your health. Yet if you eat too much spinach, you're taking in too much oxalate, which can lead to kidney stones. Do you think information is any different? There's such thing as too much of a good thing, and while you'd be right to argue you have to take in a TON of spinach to have those effects, you take in an absolutely insane amount of information each day. Even before you crack that business book, you're probably on the verge of overload. So stop taking in any piece of information and material you can get your hands on. Learn only what you need to know at any period of time to get you to the next step.

Just Say No to Information Overload

Information overload is the enemy of productivity. It feels productive because you're “learning”, but in reality you're wasting time. It doesn't matter how high quality the information is that you're taking in if you don't action it right away. But luckily, you have control over how much information you choose to consume. Having all of the information in the world and not using it is like being a millionaire who never spends a dime. So you get to choose. Will you be a smart information consumer, or will you be frivolous with your time and energy?

24 thoughts on “A Quick-Start Guide to Avoiding Information Overload

  1. Will @ Phroogal says:

    What a refreshing post! I gave up watching the news a few years ago. My life is SO MUCH BETTER after having done that. It’s negative and pointless to passively watch what’s happening in some village half-way across the globe.

    • Sarah says:

      The news is just propaganda. Anything important that’s going on you’ll find out about through other means. So many people are afraid of being “uninformed” or are misled to thinking they aren’t smart or adult if they don’t watch/listen to/read the news but really, the news is just more needless information cherry picked because it makes the best story.

    • Sarah says:

      Even GOOD idea overload is overload :) And how good are the ideas if you can never implement them,right? Thanks for reading, Rachel.

  2. TK says:

    how to organize info, assuming I can prioritize the dynamics is my usual challenge. can others benefit from my research? not if I don’t have a blog/website{note to self] :-)

  3. Don says:

    What? More information on information overload? Kidding aside, I found this valuable as I am an info junkie. It feels selfish to absorb so much without making a contribution. Procrastination is my forte and goes with this.

    • Sarah says:

      HAH! So true. We all procrastinate. I’m no exception! We just fool ourselves into thinking we’re being productive by researching.

  4. Richard says:

    Concur with the earlier post about giving up on watching the news. News is really just entertainment under the guise of providing information. It’s mostly depressing (because that’s what sells) and seldom of any real value.

    • Sarah says:

      Yes! I completely agree. I cut out the news ages ago. I get my “must-know” information from Twitter or conversation.

  5. Vivian says:

    Thanks Sarah! Your post was calling me out. I do feel overwhelmed at time because I’ve done research after research on blogging and now I’m in sort of a funk. I haven’t really done anything because I’m afraid once I make that leap there will be something that I should’ve looked at or investigated before diving all in. To be honest, I’m still getting use to Facebook, but I’m getting there. Maybe this is where I just go for it and “it’s do or die.” Thanks for the great post and reminder to not let it overwhelm me, to relax and just do it.

    • Sarah says:

      Hey Vivan,
      Yes! It’s do or die for sure. That’s a nice, succinct way of putting it. Thanks for the words!

  6. Deena says:

    Awesome post, Sarah! You really got inside my skin. Will sign off now so I can do some work instead of reading about it. :)

  7. Anthony Metivier says:

    The point about overload getting in the way of becoming an effective teacher (and continuing to be one) is golden. You’ve got to keep sharp, of course, but not cluttered.
    My former sitar teacher once said that it takes 20 years to study the instrument, 20 years to perform it and 20 years to teach it before you’re a sitar master. You can do all three at once, but you’ve got to do it, just you and the sitar.
    I think that applies here.
    Thanks for the great post!

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you, Anthony!
      Yeah I definitely think that this is a compelling enough reason to avoid info overload. It’s not healthy for your business :) I like that, about the sitar!

  8. Claudia Rose says:

    This is exactly where I am. Every idea creates new ideas. I keep trying out new things and nothing that I have done gets completed. I am really frustrated and keep saying to myself “You are in trouble.” I am wondering if it’s fear that is stopping me but at this point I am anxious and ready for feedback from the real world. Today I will take the initial piece of my business and follow through the the bits that need closure and just begin. Thanks for letting me know that I am not alone in this phase. OK. Thanks for the timely post.

    • Sarah says:

      You’re definitely not alone, Claudia – I’ve gone through it, and we all have. I’m glad it helped you. I’m looking forward to hearing whether you made some progress!

  9. Upenyu says:

    Great post. If I could act on only a third of downloaded information sitting on my hard drive…. I could be earning 6 figures. Unfortunately, the information remains there, untouched while I download and book mark more articles from hundreds of blogs l subscribed to. After reading this article, it’s time to reflect, open a new email and follow a single mentor with blinkers.

  10. ayush says:

    I am Very thankful for your this post ..its so true . I have felt this and now I think I am in this same sitchwetion . and really if we don’t use the information that we’re learning immediately, we lose up to 75% of that information from our memories..
    But my English is not good as it would be ..that why I can’t understand this all ..but its very touching and this happening with me.. But feeling good to know some other people also in this sitchwetion

  11. Michael Einstein says:

    Great recommendations and completely agree.
    I believe that some of the bigger issues are related to organizational and behavioral challenges.
    People keep complaining about the challenges of “information overload” and how we have so much more information today then ever. It is true that as a society we are “producing” an incredible amount of information, orders of magnitude more then in past decades.
    However, through my research (which focuses on Email Overload), discussions with other information overload researchers, and personal observations, I believe the issue is not so much the quantity of information being collected and made available that is the challenge, but rather the fracturing of our attentions through the multiple media channels and their constant interruptions. For the past several decades, you have been able to go to a library and have more information then you could ever consume. The information has always been there.
    The primary issues are with respect to the cognitive challenges in filtering, organizing, ignoring, and sorting through all of our “noisy” media sources. This is not so much a technological or societal issue, but rather a primarily behavioral and cognitive issue. There was a time when I worked in an office with a telephone that would ring, a stack of reports to read, and a few meetings to attend. I would focus my attention on each item, one at a time, and accomplish my work. Now, we have desktop computers that can instantly pull us to check our Emails, shop, check on social events, perform our banking, and so on. And the old, simple “flip phones” of past have morphed into multi-use devices that are cameras / Email devices / video recorders / gaming devices / socializing devices / navigation devices / make reservations / and, oh yeah.. make the occasional phone call.
    The solution is to incorporate behavioral and cognitive training early on to individuals and teach them how to focus, how to prioritize, how to isolate, and how to be productive. This means “disconnecting” so you can focus and be productive.
    I’m not anti-technology. In fact, I think technology is neat and love it.
    But we must learn to be the masters of our devices, instead of letting our devices master us.
    Dr. Michael Einstein

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