Five Easy Cures for Information Overload

“Our brains would melt if they tried to process and store even a fraction of the information they are exposed to.” 

Tim Pollard, American communications professional

Face it: we’re drowning in information. There’s too much to do and see every day. Our brains are already busy in the background, filtering mundane sensory information; few take it into account, but in the modern world, even that’s already in overload. There’s so much more to experience in a modern town, in a modern nation, than there was when we lived in rural or woodland environments. Worse, we still react the same way to the unexpected as we did then. A water hose in the grass or a stick rustling in a leaf-pile can have your senses screaming “Snake!” These constant warnings result in adrenaline-fueled reactions that probably saved an ancestor’s life but isn’t so helpful now. Add in a petabyte of information annually from 4000k TVs, games, news, and e-communications, and we’re overwhelmed.

It’s a powerful testament to human flexibility that our brains have been able to adapt at all and simplify things to the essentials. As Tim Pollard points out in his book The Compelling Communicator“The human brain is reductionist… what the brain consistently does is reduce the information it receives to its simplest and most concise form.”

We’re not going to dispense with information overload anytime soon, short of reverting to 19th century technology; however, we can manage it through much-discussed tactics, such as managing email, applying systems, learning to focus, etc. But in this blog, I suggest a few LESS common ways to save yourself from information overload.

Turn it off — Reject the bulk of incoming information. Unsubscribe from most newsletters, except for one news digest. I read each day, and that’s it — ignore the political leanings. The rest I filter automatically into Outlook folders using rules, which I read about monthly on some random plane bound for somewhere. Stop watching the news and watch entertaining shows instead. Listen to happy music while doing chores around the house. Spend time with family and friends. Walk your dog or get one. Meditate. Move to Colorado and enjoy the outdoors. Read a book you’ve read before and enjoyed. Just say no.

Veg out occasionally — I like to “putter,” which just consists of wandering around my house, humming something, and putting stuff away or knocking out little projects. It’s like therapy to me. Not for you? Then sharpen your brain with Sudoku. Or fix something. Go to a sporting event or play. Or drive your car nowhere. Take some old clothes to Goodwill. Do something mindless. Take the weekend off to work in the yard. Exercise more. I highly recommend the addictive Take a nap. Any of these activities will keep most unwanted information from finding you.

Reduce and clarify — This fits Pollard’s idea of the brain as reductionist. When you receive information, trim it until all you have left are the lean basics required to move forward. You can’t simplify everything into a sound-bite, but many things you can; and even if you can’t, you can still simplify somewhat. What is the single next step you would need to do to move a huge complicated project forward? You can unpack the details later. Just get started. Is it a call? A web search? An email?

Article Continues Below

Do a brain dump — Sit down with pen and paper (or at your computer) and get every idea buzzing around in your head out, whether it has to do with work or your latest dream business. Brain-dumping out not only relieves you of the strain of having to remember and worry about ideas, now you have a record for later review if you need it. This can help clear your mind, at least temporarily. Can’t sleep? Sending yourself texts in the middle of the night? You’re probably keeping everything on your mind IN your mind. Get rid of it!

Take a technology vacation — Take the info overload cleanse to an extreme: Get away from your electronics for a day. YES! An entire day. Don’t touch a computer or your phone. Can you do two days? A week? Seriously, the world will not fall apart. I’m going to Italy in June 2019 for my 50th birthday and won’t be plugged in for 10 days! (Please send ideas to Plan for it — solicit an email-checking buddy if you must. NO devices or anything with a battery (if you need maps that’s OK, but don’t click off). Go fishing, hiking, golfing, spa-ing (is that a word?) or boating, or anything else you like. Enjoy nature. Build a campfire to prove you still can. Make s’mores. Play board games. Read a real book (fiction that has nothing to do with work). Take a pen and paper to write things down— errant ideas, brain dumps, a list of things to keep you busy later.

Everything in moderation

You’re unlikely to reduce your incoming information to a trickle, but you can at least cut it down to a reasonable flow. So when you take that drink, it’s from a garden hose rather than a firehose. There will always be plenty of “water” — you must regulate the flow. Even the world’s most amazing computer, the human brain, can only handle so much information. Regulate the bandwidth before you crash!

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.