We are bombarded with more information today than at any time in history. Forty years ago, most of the world got their daily news from a newspaper, the radio, or a 30-minute daily television program. If you wanted to catch up with family and friends, you had to call them or physically get together with them. If you wanted to learn something new, you had to take a class or go to the library. PIctures were sent off to be developed, which took several days. If someone wanted you to do something at work, they had to come and tell you personally.
Today, information is everywhere, all the time, at our fingertips, whether we want it or not. We can surf the web, listen to podcasts, curate a Twitter feed, subscribe to blogs, and keep up with family and friends via Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat and other apps (apps now being a word). Massive amounts of information are dumped into our email inboxes every day, and email is regularly used to task us in both our professional and personal lives. My email inbox tells me how my college savings plans are doing, what is going on at my children’s schools, what is going on in my community, all the great sales that are being offered, when there is a traffic jam or a busted water pipe, when there is a new event on my calendar, when my credit card statement is due, when my amazon items have shipped, what I purchased on ITunes a few days ago, and tons of interesting blog and magazine articles I might want to read.
Because there is information literally everywhere nowadays, and because we’re curious people by nature, we have a strong tendency to want to consume all of it – from the most essential to the clearly mundane. It’s like being in a candy shop for the brain – all the time – challenging to resist the temptation to consume just one more tidbit of information. But just like consuming too much candy can give you a sugar crash, consuming too much information can leave your brain depleted and unable to retain anything at all. All that information can be overwhelming when it comes at you as a myriad of disparate tasks across the many facets of your life. You will soon find yourself thinking and feeling – “there is so much to do!” And while you might have an awful lot on your plate, what is really causing you anxiety is all that information bombarding you at once. Back in the good ol’ days, people did not have daily panic attacks about their to-do lists.
It can seem like there is no way out of information overload in today’s day and age, but the reality is that while you may not have total control over the information that finds you, you do have control over what you consume and when. Here are some tips to beat back some of the information overload and take back control of your brain.
Have information goals
Choose the information that you will consume. One way to avoid information overload is simply to take in less information. Just because it is out there and available doesn’t mean that you have to consume it. But what information should you take in and what information should you pass on? WYNC studios of New York in their info magical series suggests that you set information goals. Decide what information you need to have in your life to achieve your professional and personal goals, then actively seek out that information and ignore the rest. Review your email subscriptions and social media feeds, and cull those that are not benefiting you in any specific way.
Avoid brain junk food – it’s not entertainment – it’s work for your brain
Just like you shouldn’t reach for those potato chips when you are hungry, you shouldn’t reach for those memes when you are bored with what you are working on. You might think that surfing the internet for a little while is a break, but for your brain, it’s work. Yup – who knew that staring at a screen could be so taxing? Every time you surf the net or flip through your feeds on social media or check your email, you are using up your limited neural resources for the day. You run out of these just like you run out of money when you spend it on things here and there with little to account for at the end of the day. Decide if you want to use up your brain energy on Twitter or save it for something more productive. Seek real entertainment that will recharge you, such as reading a book, watching a good movie, or engaging in a hobby.
Find another way to keep up with people outside of social media
Limit your social media use. If you use social media to keep up with your friends, do it less frequently. I used to be a Facebook addict. I would scroll endlessly through my feed for the day, catching up on the lives of everyone I had ever known in my entire life. I did this day after day for a really long time until I finally realised that Facebook was often pulling me down the rabbit hole. Instead of catching up with friends, I found myself watching videos and reading stories about people that not only weren’t my friends, but that I didn’t even know. Once I realised that, I replaced Facebook with more personal interactions with my friends – actual visits, lunch dates, get-togethers, phone calls and letters (Yes! The USPS still delivers letters, and it’s so nice to receive one!). If you think you don’t have time to keep in touch with the people who are really important in your life, consider how much time you are spending catching up with the people who aren’t.
Organize incoming information in a way that makes your brain happy
Much of the new information that you receive comes in the form of email, but unfortunately it comes to you in a haphazard, random kind of way. You might get an email asking you to do something, another email that is a response from someone on another task, then a blog post or some other email from something that you have subscribed to, then a promotional item—all mixed up together in your day. Even when the emails are all about things that need to be done, they will be in disparate areas. The phenomenon that this produces is akin to 15 different people coming into your office every hour and asking you for something different. It hurts to even think about that, yet this is what we experience every day when we check our email. Read more tips here about how to reign in the email monster in a way that saves your brain’s precious energy resources.
Let go of the need to know everything
It all starts here. If you suffer from FOMO, you are going to have a hard time following any of this advice. But I am here to tell you that you can actually miss out and the earth will continue to spin on its axis. I gave up reading or watching the news for a while, and I survived. Turns out people will talk about what is trending out there without you actually needing to be directly involved in digging up the information yourself. And since you are doing more talking with people and less staring at your phone, you’ll find out about the most important topics anyway. If you don’t subscribe to everything, check your email every 10 minutes, read through all your social media accounts, or google that interesting topic that just popped into your head, you might miss something. And that is perfectly okay. Because guess what? You are only retaining about 25-50% of all the information that you are consuming anyway. So, let it go. Your brain will thank you.