Information Overload: Too Much Information Becomes Noise

[Note: This post was updated January 2021 for freshness & clarity.]

In “Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions,” an article for the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), Joseph Ruff says that we are bombarded with so much data that we’re on information overload. Simply put, information overload is when our ability to process information has passed its limit, and further attempts to process information or make accurate decisions from the surplus of information leads to information overload.

Ruff argues that information overload interferes with our ability to learn and engage in creative problem-solving. For instance, venture capitalists with too much information cannot make accurate adjustments to their evaluation process, and because of this their learning is impeded.

“Once capacity is surpassed, additional information becomes noise and results in a decrease in information processing and decision quality…[H]aving too much information is the same as not having enough” (Ruff, 2002, p. 4).

There’s even a name for it, Information Fatigue Syndrome.* Its symptoms include:

    • Poor concentration due to the overloading of short-term memory
    • Polyphasic behavior or multi-tasking often resulting in diminished rather than increased productivity
    • Hurry sickness, which is the belief that one must constantly rush to keep pace with time
    • Pervasive hostility resulting in a chronic state of irritability near anger or even rage
    • Habituation or over stimulation which causes the brain to shut down and enter a trance-like state
    • “Plugged in” compulsion is the strong need to check email, voice mail and the Internet in order to stay “in touch”
    • Traditional stress including lowered immune response, endocrine imbalance, depression and the experience of “burn out”

Ruff offers a list of strategies to manage information overload. He divides the solutions into proactive and reactive strategies. Proactive strategies are attempts at preventing information overload. Reactive strategies, on the other hand, are implemented after information overload has occurred. Below is Ruff’s list (verbatim) [to see a more detailed list click on the link to his PDF* in the reference section or click HERE]:

Proactive

    • Devise a pulse-taking system to form a constantly changing up-to-date mental model of the organization and key stakeholders
    • Create a personal system for storing and retrieving information (i.e. notebook, planner, system for filing and organizing email)
    • Do not overwhelm yourself with a waste-not want-not mentality; throw it away or delete it
    • Time management training
    • Business writing training
    • Software and technology training
    • Information literacy training
      • Traditional and digital communication skills
      • Thinking and decision making skills
      • Creativity, innovation and risk taking
      • Computer literacy
      • Subject matter literacy
      • Learning how to learn
      • Electronic resources
    • Chunking and mnemonics training
    • Perception’s role in information overload training

Reactive

    • Filtering – focusing attention only on the most useful and essential information while purposefully ignoring other sources
    • Multitasking – performing two or more job functions at the same time [See my post Multitasking Doesn’t Work]
    • Queuing – performing initial steps to tasks that will be completed at a latter time
    • Escaping – eliminating disturbances by psychologically or physically limiting disruptions from outside world (i.e. not answering phone, closing door)
    • Prioritizing – determining and approaching most important tasks first
    • Delegating – determining which tasks can be given to other workers
    • Refusing – determining which tasks can be left undone
    • Limiting – not being seduced by thinking that more information is better
    • Satisficing – seeking “good enough” solutions; not perfection
    • Altering – changing perception of a task by performing it in a different way or place (i.e. view documents on paper instead of a computer screen; move to a lounge or coffee shop)
    • Shifting – changing perception of situation by accepting it as just part of the job

Author’s Note [January 2021]: I’m adding additional notes below to include several terms related to “Information Overload” as well as expand on the origin of the term, “Information Fatigue Syndrome.”

These terms include: “Information Fatigue Syndrome”, “Data Smog”, and “Information Anxiety”.

    • “Information Fatigue Syndrome” – from Dr. David Lewis (1996)
    • “Data Smog” – from David Shenk (1997)
    • “Information Anxiety” – from Richard Saul Wurman (1989)

In 1989, Richard Saul Wurman’s book, Information Anxiety, described this phenomenon of information overload.

* In 1996, Dr. David Lewis (a British psychologist), authored the report Dying for Information, in which he coined the term “information fatigue syndrome” to describe the effect of information overload. Information Fatigue Syndrome leads to an over-bombardment of information to the brain which can result in “paralysis of analysis” and poor decision-making.

In 1997, David Shenk in his book, Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, used the term “data smog” and information glut to describe information overload.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership Development Advisor & Consultant

References

NPR. (1996, October 15). Info Glut. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1045194

Reuters Business Information. (1996). Dying for Information: An investigation into the effects of information overload in the UK and Worldwide. Reuters.

Reuters. (1997). The Reuters Guide to Good Information Strategy: Abridged version for the Reuters Web site. Retrieved from http://jmab.planetaclix.pt/GesInf/Aula5/The_Reuters_Guide_to_Good_Information_Strategy.pdf

Ruff, J. (2002). Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions. Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA). Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions.pdf [*PDF now hosted on WorkplacePsychology.Net for convenience.]

Shenk, D. (1997). Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut. HarperCollins.

Shenk, D. (1997). Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut. Retrieved from https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/s/shenk-data.html

Waddington, P. (1996). Dying for Information? An Investigation into Information Overload in the UK and Worldwide. Retrieved from http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/papers/bl/blri078/content/repor~13.htm

Wurman, R. S. (1989). Information Anxiety. Doubleday.