A work futurist explains how to combat information overload – and why you should avoid multitasking at all costs.
We’ve all felt it: the tension, the inability to focus, the pounding headache that comes from being overwhelmed by information.
Also known as ‘infoxication’, ‘data smog’ or ‘infobesity’, information overload is a concept likely familiar to anyone who’s participated in an ‘always-on’ working culture, doomscrolled on social media, or witnessed the explosion of remote work and its associated pressures.
In fact, the prevalence of infobesity is rising. A recent survey from OpenText found that 80 per cent of Australians fall victim to information overload due to factors such as information being available around the clock and an overabundance of apps and devices. These factors, according to the report, are upping stress levels and contributing to a less equipped workforce.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” says author, public speaker and work futurist Lynne Cazaly of these findings. “Most of us have felt information overload.”
Some people say their brain feels ‘fried’ by the end of a long day, she explains, or emerge from meetings feeling dull and desensitised to any new stimulus.
In a HBR article, Cazaly unpacks the two main ways an overload of information can manifest, and what symptoms it create:
- Rapidly – when an onrush of information, such as at a hands-on brainstorming meeting, takes hold.
“In the middle of an important meeting, you suddenly feel full, like you can’t take in another thing in that moment,” she writes.
- Gradually – when the information builds and builds across the working day.
“At the end of each day, you feel dull and unable to absorb anything else.”
Both avenues reduce your capacity to do good work, she says, with the overload of information not only causing low mood and fatigue but also potentially weakening the immune system.
The dangers of multitasking and ‘multiscreening’
Juggling multiple tasks at once has long been considered a trademark of a highly successful worker, but a more recent understanding has emerged on the dangers of multitasking.
“We know multitasking is bad for productivity, but it’s rotten for cognitive load,” says Cazaly. Spreading our attention across three, five, ten tasks instead of just one ups the chance of the noxious data smog descending.
Moving from one task to another without stopping to focus one’s attention on any individual task can actually lessen your functional IQ.
“We know multitasking is bad for productivity, but it’s rotten for cognitive load.” – Lynne Cazaly
A close cousin of multitasking is multiscreening.
“Multiscreening is quite common,” says Cazaly. “Say you’re watching a show on Netflix with the family, but you’re also scrolling through your work emails.”
This shifts your attention between two very different poles, lessening productivity on both ends and contributing to stress and panic working.
Instead, “if you took 10 minutes to check your emails and then said, ‘Now I’m going to sit down with my family, you would actually feel better,” she says. And both productivity and wellbeing would improve.
Read HRM’s article on how to combat a shortening attention span.
Using too many platforms is another common contributor to information overload. OpenText found 27 per cent of respondents used more than 11 tools, apps and devices to access all the information they needed each day, constituting an increase of 12 percentage points from two years ago.
If we’re using upwards of 11 separate devices and apps to navigate our way through the heady smog of information, no wonder so many of us feel like it’s getting too much.
How to combat information overload
To lighten one’s information load – and shed a few metaphorical ‘infokilos’ – Cazaly shares her top dos and don’ts for managing information overload at work.
Do: A brain dump
Step one is to alleviate the burden on your brain with a brain dump.
“It’s called externalising information,” says Cazaly. “Whatever is running around your head, get it out. Therapists and counsellors talk about this for when you’re feeling overwhelmed emotionally, but it’s also great for documenting your to-do list.”
In practice, this could mean grabbing a piece of paper, pulling up a fresh Google Doc or opening the voice recorder app on your phone, and letting loose with whatever’s on your mind.
Think a list of tasks to accomplish today, your ideas for a new work project, or simply your frustration with how your manager has handled a recent new hire.
Whatever it is, let it out.
“Your strategy is to empty it from your brain so it’s not taking up valuable working memory.”
Then, by virtue of having stored your thoughts separately in something of a ‘second brain’, you’re able to draw on that information intentionally, at your own pace and without feeling overwhelmed.
Do: Take breaks
“If you’re not taking breaks, going to back-to-back meetings, and multitasking, then you develop a worse ability to discern the importance of information,” says Cazaly.
The solution here is simple time management. You could use a productivity method such as the Pomodoro Technique, she suggests, to balance focused work with periods of rest.
Do: Model new practices
When it comes to taking action on information overload, many employees are waiting for the organisation to act first, says Cazaly, but “these sorts of things are often best introduced individually”.
Instead she suggests HR could introduce new tools and ways of working and model them for the rest of the organisation.
“I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to wait for your organisation to decree that ‘This is now how we’re doing it’. You can start experimenting as a team.”
Do: Throw away the script
Cazaly explains how she is currently researching dozens of different ways of working, one of which might surprise you as being valuable in a work context.
“Improvisation is very under-utilised,” she says. “I’m not talking about performance improv. It’s trusting that you have some answers and trusting your own ingenuity.”
Imagine you were heading into a team meeting, but did no preparation. Although this can seem counterintuitive, Cazaly believes the technique, if used reasonably, can trigger creative thinking.
“Instead of trying to control things, what if we release that control and let improvisation happen in a meeting or gathering, or on a project, and see what happens,” she says. “That could be interesting.”
Don’t: Overstuff your presentations
A fairly easy technique to reduce the cognitive load placed on colleagues, according to Cazaly, is trimming back on your slide decks.
“If an HR team member is explaining a new system or process to other team leaders from across the business, they would want to seriously look at the slide deck,” says Cazaly.
She recommends pulling back on dozens and dozens of slides that simply work to overload the viewer, and more concisely lay out your ideas.
Don’t: Reply to emails (straight away)
Here’s one that will catch out countless workers: give clearing your email inbox first thing in the morning a miss – Cazaly says it gives a “delusion of progress”.
“Some people like to use email to warm up,” she says. “You might say, ‘My inbox is empty’, or ‘I’ve gotten through 300 emails today’, which many people do value. But at the start of the day when your brain is fresh and clear from rest, that’s the time when you want to be doing your big thinking.
“Take a break, stand up, get a drink, whatever – and then check your emails. Set a timer so you’re in your email inbox for 10 minutes. Then get back to the priorities of the day.”
The impact of information overload might not be surprising – but you might not have known it affects 80 per cent of us. Learn more about using people data to improve decision making with this AHRI short course.