Coping with Information Overload: Part I

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 29, 2010

"I have a theory about the human mind. A brain is a lot like a computer. It will only take so many facts, and then it will go on overload and blow up."
Erma Bombeck

We live in a world of information overload. From our computers to our telephones and from our printed pages to our high definition screens, the information tsunami just keeps washing over us. It doesn't matter if we are on the job or on vacation, at home or on the road, most of us are connected 24/7. I think we would all agree that this is our new reality. 

I can hardly be in a meeting without the buzz of someone's phone. Even during the "breaks" just about everyone is checking for urgent messages and just about everyone must be getting them because just about everyone is returning them. Meetings can hardly resume because urgent issues from somewhere else keep intruding what is presently being done. 

The waves of information just keep coming and coming. At times we are tempted to do something drastic and shut it all off or at least go away without our computer or cell phone but what if something came up and someone needed to talk with us. The world of connectedness has become so necessary to us we hardly want to consider functioning without it. 

And it is more than an addiction to a hobby. It has become for us a necessity. Besides, everything is moving so fast and there is indeed so much information for which we are responsible, if we don't keep taking it in we will simply get farther and farther behind. Sometimes, though, it feels like instead of swimming in information, we are drowning in it. 

Recently I read an article by Sarah Houghton-Jan titled, "Being Wired or Being Tired: 10 Ways to Cope with Information Overload." Within this article are some outstanding suggestions to help all of us as we wrestle with this ever growing challenge. Here will be the first of a three part series on information overload. 

It was helpful for me to learn that this is not a new challenge. Houghton-Jan observes, "As far back as the sixteenth century people were complaining about the wide range of information they had to consume in order to contribute to society." In 1865 Adrien Baillet lamented, "We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire." 
Scholars at that time turned to "browsing, skimming, purchasing, collecting, annotating, dog-earing, cutting and pasting" as ways to encounter and interact with the text. But with the dawn of the digital revolution, the world of information overload moved way beyond anyone in the 16th or 17th centuries ever could have imagined. 

Psychiatrist E. M. Hallowell claims that there is a sustained negative effect of information overload called "Attention Deficit Trait" or "ADT." He says, "It isn't an illness; it's purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live." He claims that as we try to deal with more and more information, our brains and our bodies get locked into a "reverberating circuit" which makes it difficult for us in "staying organized, setting priorities, and managing time" so that we "feel a constant low level of panic and guilt." 

I don't think we need to take any more time to define this reality. Most of us face it every day. Our challenge is to discover ways which will help us cope with this information overload. Over the next two weeks we will consider the 10 ways Houghton-Jan suggests to help us cope. Until then, you may want to take inventory of all the information which comes at you in the next seven days. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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