Overcome information overload

Readers face the equivalent of 174 newspapers a day

Talk about TMI: Your readers receive the data equivalent of 174 newspapers a day — ads included, according to a study by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Overcome information overload

TMI Your readers receive the equivalent of 174 newspapers a day. How can your message compete? Image by rawpixel.com

“We’ve created more information in the last five years than all of human history before it,” says author and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin.

What’s the cost of all of this information? And how can our messages break through the clutter?

What does information overload cost readers?

“The printing press is either the greatest blessing or the greatest curse of modern times. Sometimes one forgets which it is.”
— Sir James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan

All of that information causes:

1. Stress

“I’m road kill on the information highway.”
— Melanie Marshall, former CEO of Hipikat.com

Trying keep up with all of that data can deplete and demoralize you, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review. Indeed, nearly 80% of respondents to an NPR survey said they get headaches, insomnia or eye twitches as a result of information overload.

It’s no wonder that “wired” means both “connected to the internet” and “high, frantic, unable to concentrate,” writes Johann Hari, a UK journalist.

Some people even suffer Email Apnea — author Linda Stone’s term for the “unconscious suspension of regular and steady breathing” when tackling the inbox.

And trying to keep up by multitasking — reading emails in a meeting, for instance, or texting while watching Game of Thronesactually produces more stress hormones, The Economist reports.

2. Exhaustion

“The reader is now driven by the fatigue factor.”
— Ellen Levine, former editor in chief of Good Housekeeping

Our brains “have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired,” neuroscientist Daniel Levitin told NPR.

And that exhaustion, perhaps fittingly, makes it even harder for us to process information.

“News fatigue brought many of the participants to a learned helplessness response,” say researchers of an Associated Press study on the effect of reading news. “The more overwhelmed or unsatisfied they were, the less effort they were willing to put in.”

How much effort are they willing to put in to get through your messages?

3. Attention Deficit Trait

“You’re not more informed. You’re just numbed.”
— Tom Rosenstiel, former Los Angeles Times media critic

We consume, on average, 63 gigabytes of media a day, according to a report by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Communications Technology Management. That’s the equivalent of:

  • 63 hours of streaming video
  • 63,000 hours of streaming music
  • 10,000 times the Complete Works of Shakespeare

That’s 15.5 hours of media a day — not including time at work.

Let’s assume that eight hours at the office plus nearly 16 hours of watching, listening and reading still equals a 24-hour day. If we also assume sleep, then it becomes obvious that we’re multitasking, not focusing on, this information.

Plus — SHINY OBJECT! — that information interrupts us constantly. That text, that email, that Facebook notification that your BFF from first grade has a birthday today — these messages interrupt us every five to 12 minutes, according to information analyst and researcher Nathan Zeldes.

In this environment, keeping up with the latest notification somehow starts to seem more important than focusing on high-priority projects.

You're not more informed, you're just numbed

“We’re fooled by immediacy and quantity and think it’s quality,” says Eric Kessler, of Pace University’s Lubin School of Business. “What starts driving decisions is the urgent rather than the important.”

In fact, we’re so conditioned to interruptions, that if information doesn’t interrupt us, we interrupt ourselves, researcher Gloria Mark reports. No wonder, according to Microsoft research, our attention spans last only eight seconds.

That’s where Attention Deficit Trait comes in. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, an expert on Attention-Deficit Disorder, coined the term. He believes that the modern workplace’s information load causes symptoms similar to those of the genetically based disorder.

4. Reduced IQ

“It’s all right, sweetie. In the information age, everybody feels stupid.”
— Peter Steiner cartoon in The New Yorker

Information multitasking temporarily lowers your IQ by more than 10 points, according to a Hewlett Packard survey of 1,100 Britons. Smoking weed, in comparison, costs only four IQ points — and, from what I’ve read, is a much more interesting way to get stupid.

The result, according to BuzzWhack.com, is “mental Pez” — “To be hit with so much information that it becomes impossible to focus on one thing, so stuff goes from top-of-mind to tip-of-tongue, only to eventually fall out of our head completely.”

What does information overload cost organizations?

All of which means that your organization’s workforce is stressed out, exhausted, unable to focus on the important and possibly working with diminished IQ.

What other problems does information overload cause organizations?

1. Communication

“We’re always making the crazy assumption that readers are reading everything we write.”
— William Blundell, author of The Art and Craft of Feature Writing

It’s so cute that you think they’re actually reading that intranet piece on your company’s move to develop an agile workforce. Best case scenario: They’re looking at the pictures while watching Ozark, listening to Hamilton and texting their spouses a grocery list.

2. Productivity

“We are going to continue having these meetings, every day, until I find out why no work is getting done.”
— Anonymous manager

Employees spend nearly half their workweeks reading emails and finding information, according to an analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute. Add sharing that information in-house, and that leaves just 39% of their workweeks for doing their jobs.

And remember all those interruptions? One every five to 12 minutes?

Each time employees are interrupted by email, it takes, on average, 24 minutes to get back to the task at hand, according to a study by Microsoft researchers. And, when your task is interrupted, Zeldes says, it takes 20% to 40% more time to complete it.

Plus, whether they’re ER doctors, accountants, 401(k) plan owners or others, overloaded employees make bad decisions.

BuzzWhack calls it the “dopeler effect” — “the tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.”

3. Money

American knowledge workers — people whose jobs involve dealing with information — waste a quarter of their time dealing with huge data streams, according to The Information Overload Research Group. That costs the U.S. economy $997 billion a year.

How do we solve this problem?

“Information is giving out. Communication is getting through.”
— Anonymous

So what’s a communicator to do?

Do that, and your message just might compete with 174 newspapers — ads included — each day.

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Additional sources: Charles Arthur, “What’s a zettabyte? By 2015, the internet will know, says Cisco,” The Guardian, June 29, 2011

Martin Hilbert and Priscilla Lopez, “The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information,” Science, Feb. 10, 2011

Nathan Zeldes, “Effects of information overload #2: cognitive disability,” white paper, Oct. 24, 2012

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