Information overload is a very modern problem but that doesn’t make it any less real than any of the other health challenges that we face.
In fact, if you find yourself feeling burned out, listless or low on motivation then information overload – and its cousin ‘decision fatigue’ – might well be responsible. Let’s take a closer look at what these conditions are, what causes them and what you can do about them.
What Is Information Overload?
Essentially, information overload describes the tiredness and anxiety that can come from the constant information streams that we are forced to juggle every day. The biggest culprit is technology: with television, smartphones, computers and more all placing a serious strain on concentration and raising our stress levels.
But while the term ‘information overload’ is relatively new, we can’t entirely blame our gadgets and devices either. At the same time, reading the paper during breakfast, listening to the radio and chatting to friends on the landline can be equally as stressful and harmful. So too can walking down a high street filled with people chatting, shouting and honking with billboards vying for our attention and bright lights telling us when to stop and go. And work has always been the worst culprit, here the information is often internalized as we juggle with the 20 things we need to be doing and remembering.
How Information Overload Is Damaging to Us
Each time you get a notification from your phone, it can alarm you and trigger a very minor stress response. In fact, the sound of the alarm is designed specifically to cause this response – it is chosen as an ‘unnatural’ and uncommon noise that our unconscious brains automatically perceive as novel and therefore important.
Similarly stressful is the anticipation of notifications. Even when you’re not being alerted by ringtones and buzzes, you can find yourself half listening out for them – which is the reason so many of us now experience ‘phantom’ vibrations in our pockets.
This is made all the worse when a large number of those notifications are coming from the workplace and constantly pulling us back into the concerns and worries of the day.
Did you know that one of the ways researchers will subject rats to stress for studies is by blaring loud noises at them intermittently to prevent them from relaxing? Now consider that this is something that most of us do to ourselves voluntarily. Doesn’t sound terribly healthy, does it?
Meanwhile, constantly checking Facebook, regularly reading the news and playing Candy Crush all further drain our energy. Not only does focus itself require considerable effort, but these activities also regularly require decision making and problem solving. While this isn’t a bad thing in itself, it can leave us with less energy and focus later in the day for the things that really matter to us.
Bright lights from screens also cause a release of cortisol – the stress hormone – and make it more difficult to sleep. At the same time, colorful lights, sounds, fast-edits in video and immediately available information and gossip can all lead to us being overstimulated; making the ‘real world’ seem a lot less interesting by comparison. Advertising is designed to grab our attention and make us look up from what we’re doing but we’re desensitized too much of it now, which is why it needs to get increasingly more and more bombastic.
This is probably why we’re so much less engaged a lot of the time with what’s going on around us. The phone kept on the table during a date is perhaps the perfect metaphor for a time when Facebook seems more interesting than the world we live in.
What’s key to remember here is that all this stimulation, distraction and stress is constant. If you are like many people, you will carry your phone on you at all times and sometimes respond to messages from multiple conversations while at the same time watching TV and/or working on your laptop.
We are constantly plugged-in and this means we’re never able to savor the quiet moments, let our brains focus on just one thing or give ourselves time to recover from the constant barrage of input. There are socioeconomic concerns here yes, but in the short-term we should be most concerned with the impact on our health!
The Symptoms of Information Overload
Information overload, also known as information fatigue, has similar symptoms to chronic stress. Constantly looking at bright lights from screens and worrying about responding to messages causes a minor fight or flight response, just like emotional stress does. Overtime, this can cause adrenal fatigue which results in depression, tiredness, lethargy and an elevated heart rate.
At the same time, the constant need to concentrate and be alert and the continuous disengagement from the real world can lead to other symptoms such as confusion, difficulty focusing, impaired judgement and the inability to make decisions.
If you find yourself standing in the supermarket staring and not remembering which aisle you needed to go down first, then you might be suffering from information overload and decision fatigue.
How to Unplug and Switch Off
So how do you go about combating this problem and taking back control of your life?
The obvious answer is simple: switch off your devices!
But we all know that this is a lot easier said than done. Most of us leave our smartphones on because we need to get those incoming notifications. We unfortunately have to let work contact us in case of an emergency and we like knowing that our families can reach us too.
Reading the news is something we’re always encouraged to do and playing Angry Birds is fun.
So completely unplugging is not the solution. Instead, you should aim just to scale back the amount of information coming in at any one time and likewise you should take occasional breaks so that your brain has a chance to recover and recharge.
Here are a few tips to help you get started:
Have an Emergency Phone
You may be wondering how getting another phone could possibly help you to experience less overwhelm. But stick with me!
The idea is to have an extra smartphone that you are now going to treat as your emergency contact phone. This means that you can switch off your regular phone/leave it somewhere and still let your friends and family contact you. This will come into play in a couple of the next points we’re going to be looking at…
Go on a Break Without Your Phone
While it’s not easy to live without your phone and while you probably wouldn’t want to, it can nevertheless be very refreshing to take a single weekend off from them. Better yet is that this can help you to focus more on a new place if you’re staying somewhere and/or on your partner.
But what if there’s a family emergency? That’s where your emergency phone comes in! This should be a brick by the way – we’re talking Nokia 3210 here!
Check in Bursts
This is especially important when you’re at work, where constant emails and interruptions can actually prevent you from being productive and getting work done.
Instead of checking your email every five minutes or each time a message comes through, instead check it at set points throughout the day (every two hours perhaps). This way you can simply scan through all the messages in one go and it will take much less time out overall. It might feel awkward not answering your colleagues immediately but they should understand that you’re busy. And there’s very little that can’t wait two hours.
Take Up Some Hobbies
For many of us, all our favorite hobbies involve looking at a screen. If you enjoy movies, computer games, texting friends and reading the web then your idea of relaxing is very similar to your idea of working! Or at least it is as far as your brain is concerned.
To avoid this problem, simply try taking up some hobbies that don’t involve a screen. Better yet, come up with some hobbies that require sustained attention rather than constantly flitting from one thing to the next. OR take up some hobbies that let your mind just wonder while your body works.
Good examples include the gym, long walks, reading, meditation, sewing, knitting, drawing and playing instruments.
I mentioned meditation as one of the possible hobbies but just generally this is also a very good thing to consider taking up. Meditation is all about taking control of your attention and focus and practicing calming your mind or focusing on just one thing. This is not only a great way to combat stress but it can also enhance focus, attention and the ability to block out negative emotions and distractions. This is the antithesis to information overload and it’s the perfect antidote.
Screen Off Before Bed
One of the most important things you can do if you suffer from information overload, is simply to make the rule that you will switch off your phone for half an hour before bed – or 15 minutes. Likewise, avoid TV screens and computers which will increase cortisol in your brain and thereby decrease melatonin and make it much harder to sleep.
Reading for 15 minutes to 30 minutes is a perfect way to focus your mind, to forget your stresses and to take a time out from screens. It can be meditative and it’s perfect for helping you get ready to sleep more deeply.
Start incorporating some of these practices into your lifestyle and at the same time, just try to be a little more conscious and aware of how much time you’re spending on your phones and computers. You may just find you have a little more energy and attention to spend on the things you love.