Ouch! My Brain Hurts!
It happens slowly but surely. Your eyes burn from the strain, your lower back aches, you just threw a file at your partner. Your brain hurts. You have infoius overloadius, better known as the newest virus to hit the streets: information overload.
In one study cited in David Shenk's book, Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (HarperCollins, $24, 800-242-7737), two-thirds of business managers surveyed said they have tension with colleagues, loss of job satisfaction and strained personal relationships as a result of too much information. In this age of 24-hour news channels and the Internet, however, information overload isn't even close to going away.
Not that information itself is a bad thing, Shenk notes. "There's something vital about the idea of getting more information faster," he muses. "It's not something that we can just turn off or would want to turn off. There are so many advantages to getting more specialized information that we inevitably find ourselves overwhelmed before we realize it."
So how do you deal with the info glut before you're found unconscious beneath a mountain of magazines and newspapers, one hand still on your mouse? Here's Shenk's advice on how to dig yourself out:
1. Get out of denial. "The biggest part of the problem is that an awful lot of people don't recognize it or give it much attention," explains Shenk. "[But] as information increases, our amount of time is not increasing. We're stretching our ability to concentrate. We're distracting ourselves and letting other people distract us. We're having to make decisions much faster. There are undeniable advantages to getting more information, but there are also things you give up. You need to look for what those disadvantages are if they're not obvious."
2. Slow down! Take time to digest the information you're devouring. Read an entire magazine or a book instead of taking everything in sound bites and Web news briefs. "We're confusing the convenience of the Internet with the importance of getting the fastest information possible," says Shenk. Knowing things faster doesn't make them more important. "It's more important we understand the events in their context and spend time reading more thorough and slower technologies."
3. Variety is the spice. On the same note, don't let yourself get sucked into the common trap of receiving your news from only one source--be it e-mail, the Web, CNN or The Wall Street Journal. "If you feel drawn to one particular technology, it may not be the best for you; it might just be the most fun," Shenk points out. Ask yourself if those talking heads on the evening news really yield any pertinent information or if your time would be better spent gathering news from less entertaining, but more informative, sources.
Also, lift your head out of the sand once in awhile to look beyond your area of expertise and take in the big picture. Says Shenk, "It's important to keep a perspective and make sure you're not spending your entire day in your specialized neck of the woods. Take a few steps back and see what the forest looks like."
4. You can't take it with you. At least not all of it. When you're deciding what information to file and what to throw away, ask yourself these questions: Is it vital? Can it be easily retrieved if I don't keep it? "If I see a fairly mundane fact and it came from a Web site or someplace easy to get to," Shenk explains, "it's just as easy for me to retrieve it [later] as it would be for me to store and organize it."
Above everything, give yourself a break. Allow yourself time to escape information. Create spaces outside of your business where you can't be contacted. Leave the cell phone and laptop at the office and take time for info-free relaxation. "Separating from work is important not only for your life but for your work [as well]," Shenk says. "It's important to take a break and come back with a fresh perspective."
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