Digital Hero Tips

Three Tips to Managing Digital Information Overload

A digital hero is defined by Be a Digital Hero as:  "It's a powerful person - you - in charge of vast amounts of information and the technology to manage and share it." 

 ThreeTips to Managing Digital Information Overload

by Carol Ingley
president, Be a Digital Hero

Key digital hero terms: digital information overload, information overload, decision overload, equal opportunity information, categories, systems


Digital Information Overload Defined. About half of the world’s population has internet access  -- all potential victims of digital information overload. Most of us face it every day – so much information and no real way to process it all. The fact is, if we’re faced with too much information over a short period of time, the processing capacity of the brain has been exceeded. 

Digital information overload -- or information overload in general -- can potentially shut down the brain and/or make it impossible to retain the information long-term. Yet the issue now is much bigger than ever and will continue to grow. There’s got to be a way to deal with this. Starting with understanding the brain better is key.

Life was Simpler. If we look back at the evolution of man by examining the habits of cavemen and hunters and gatherers, one thing stands out: they did indeed have a simpler life. They weren’t scrolling through social media with half an eye on Netflix. They weren’t juggling a long to-do list.  Their main goal was survival. It was all about getting food (and  fighting off predators in the process) and procreation. If food was plentiful, there were significant down times.

The brain hasn’t changed that much from those days but our lives have. Interestingly, digital information overload is tied to decision overload. It’s why an effective solution to dealing with so much information is needed – it can cripple our ability to make decisions.

Decision Overload and Equal Opportunity Information. In the 1960s, Professor Bertram Gross coined the phrase information overload and stated its connection to decision making, saying: “Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.”

Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind, sees this same connection between information overload and decision making. He believes that, immersed in all of this digital information, our main problem becomes decision overload. That’s because, Levitin writes, our brains cannot prioritize information.

The brain looks at each morsel of data as equal opportunity information and that makes decision making more difficult if there’s a lot of information swirling around. Most data tidbits need to be screened out when making a decision because they don’t apply to the situation at hand – but the brain doesn’t know how to do that.

The good news is you can design an environment that aligns with the way the brain works.  Here are three tips to managing digital information overload: create systems, make fewer and simpler decisions and layer habits.

Tip 1: Create Systems. The best way to create systems is to look at all of the areas where information is coming in. This can include e-mail, digital articles, social media scrolling and reading, text messages, surfing the web, among many pathways. There is also all the things one must do to keep one’s life functioning: paying bills, cleaning, cooking, etc. This is included here -- life functioning habits -- because managing it lessens information overload.

Systems that can help one manage this incoming information and tasks at hand start with one simple concept: categories. 

To lessen digital information overload with categories, you can create bookmark folders available with your browser that allow links to articles. Name the bookmark such that you know what is in it. Naming it “Articles” is far too general. If you’re a medical professional, you might have a folder that’s named “Continuing Education,” that has links to future seminars and other educational opportunities in the future. Now use those same categories in other areas of your online life. For example, there could be a “Continuing Education” folder added to your email account. If you get an email about continuing education, you simply file it into that folder.

But there’s also our lives to manage – very important to manage because, otherwise, everything can go awry. Let’s take the cooking category. It could be divided into knowing what to buy at the grocery store, grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning up after meals. If you have a day of the week and time when you shop, that takes away a decision. If you keep a list during the week of what is needed and just grab it before you go, that takes away decisions. If you always do the dishes after finishing a meal, that also takes away a decision.

Tip 2: Make Fewer and Simpler Decisions. Mark Zuckerberg is a classic example of making fewer and simpler decisions. He simply dresses in a similar way every day. Steve Jobs also used this technique. 

A simple way to make a hard decision easier is to write down all aspects of a problem you are facing. Thoroughly analyze this problem on paper. Now walk away from it. You have now prioritized it and categorized some of the solutions. It is not unusual after such an exercise to wake up and know exactly what the right answer is. The brain functions best knowing the priorities and the categories.

Another way to make simpler decisions is by repeated contacts. Let’s say there is a part of social media you need to understand better. Start by surfing for an article about the subject. Find several and either bookmark them or copy to a file to read later. That’s a first step. A second step would be reading them. A third step would be applying the information if you have found the solution. Otherwise, repeat the process.

Tip 3. Layer Habits. It’s not easy to have all good habits and it seems, sometimes, hard to get rid of bad ones. The good news is you don’t have to get rid of a bad habit if you can find a good habit to replace it. Let’s say you want to cut back on caffeine. A replacement might be herbal tea or sparkling water.

Another way to increase good habits is to add a good habit to a series of good habits in the same category.  An example would be making breakfast and then cleaning up after breakfast. But suppose that didn’t end up being quite enough in the morning to keep your home running. Add another small chore to do after those are complete. Then potentially add another one.  This is an easy way to change habits by simply adding to existing good ones.

Summary. We are all potential victims of digital information overload. The three keys discussed -- create systems; make fewer and simpler decisions; and layer habits -- can be used in such a way as to lessen the overload and guiding our brains to see what needs to be prioritized and what doesn’t.


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