Information overload is when we have so much data coming at us that we can't think straight or even process it all. Our brain's do the equivalent of a fuse box shutting off.
In our current digital age, it is so easy to become overloaded with information. We can simultaneously be watching TV, scrolling social media, and reading emails - supposedly. Just because we are able to do all of these things, doesn't mean that we are doing them all well - or any of them for that matter. We probably missed something crucial in that email that we are trying to read, missing critical plot points in the movie we are trying to watch, and accidentally just liked our ex's photo on Instagram!
It isn't just the amount of information in one moment that can overwhelm us, but the constant access to information and constantly being accessible to our managers and employees. Having our work emails coming through to our phones can feel helpful in some instances, but can feel overwhelming in others. The constant pinging of our phones, even watches nowadays, can feel a bit overpowering.
The negative impact of information overload
1. Memory loss
Anthony Wagner of Stanford University found that those who often use many kinds of media at once achieved significantly poorer results on simple memory tasks.
Furthermore, neuropsychologist Dr Kenneth Freundlich stated that; “When we continually overload the system by trying to store too much in working memory, the brain loses some of its processing power". He added that "by overloading the circuits, we lose the important periods of inactivity that facilitate optimum cognitive efficiency. When we keep the brain too busy, it doesn’t get the rest it needs. We pay by suffering a deficit in both short- and long-term memory as communication between the two is disrupted by over-activity.”
Basically, our brains need some down-time in which to process information and store it properly in our brains,
2. Less Efficiency
When we are overloading our brains by trying to multitask, we are actually being less productive. It might feel like you are getting more done but actually we are losing time and effectiveness. AS mentioned earlier, we make more mistakes when were try to multitask, but we also lose precious time when trying to switch between tasks.
According to researchers, converging evidence suggests that the human "executive control" processes have two distinct, complementary stages. They call one stage "goal shifting" ("I want to do this now instead of that") and the other stage "rule activation" ("I'm turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this"). Both of these stages help people to, without awareness, switch between tasks.
However, even though this process happens subconsciously, it still takes our brains time to shift out of one task and into another, rather than single-tasking which would allow for a more continuous workflow.
Impact on Mental Health
An obvious impact of information overload on mental health is stress. The more information we are trying to focus, the more stress we will experience. Emails constantly flooding in, your phone lighting up or vibrating on the desk and co-workers popping their head through your door to chat can all lead to feelings of stress and overwhelm.
Stress, if not mitigated, can lead to anxiety. Feeling like these stressors are piling up faster than you can deal with them can lead to feelings of anxiety such as tight-chestedness, shallow breathing, pins and needles, and a racing heart. Anxiety involves distorted thinking that sees danger everywhere, constantly triggering our ‘fight or flight’ mode and leaving us on the ‘cortisol rollercoaster’ of highs and lows. Information overload has also been found to trigger cortisol, making any anxiety you already have that much worse.
Self-esteem can also be impacted by information overload. It can feel like others in the office are not as easily distracted, or those that you admire on social media for their business success wouldn't be so easily distracted. We live in a world where you can follow someone on social media who condemns the use of social media. It is a confusing and possibly self-esteem crushing paradox.
How to Handle Information Overload
Dealing with information overload can be an exercise in training your mind and creating boundaries for yourself.
Depending on how your job works, you can take your emails off your phone, or switch your work phone off outside of work hours. You could take social media apps off your phone, or turn your personal phone off while at work. You could limit yourself to one screen at a time, i.e. don't go on your phone while watching TV.
Another factor to think about is why you are distracting your mind. For a lot of us, distracting our mind with constant information is a way to stave off uncomfortable or negative emotional states. We stand in line at the supermarket and instantly get our phones out to scroll Instagram because we can't handle boredom or because we don't want to let our mind wander organically. We watch a movie in bed because we don't want to let our minds roam free in the silence.
Discovering what it is that you are distracting your mind from can help you to face it and be able to let go of all of the distractions and overload.
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