by Andrea M. Darcy
What is information overload, exactly? It means we have so much data coming at us that our brain does its best imitation of blowing a fuse.
We suddenly can’t think straight, and can even forget what we were doing. Sound familiar?
Information overload in the digital age
How much overload are we talking when it comes to today’s digital world?
According to the Real Time Statistics Project, as of January this year, there are close to two billion websites on the internet. And we are also facing 175 million tweets every day, and 30 billion pieces of content shared monthly on Facebook.
If you wanted to process all the digital data that exists? It would be like watching 200 billion movies. In HD. Oh wait. That was a statistic from seven years ago, so add some more films to the list… feeling overwhelmed yet?
Information overload in the workplace
Sure, it’s our choice to spend our evenings cruising the internet pretending we are looking for a healthy recipe as we read the latest gossip on the Daily Mail, listen to a podcast, and answer texts.
But we don’t have a choice if the modern workplace puts unrealistic expectations on us to multitask.
A UK-based report by Microsoft found that 55 per cent of British workers felt that information overload was an issue. They reported feeling stressed, and felt it was affecting their wellbeing.
[Feel your workplace is pushing you too hard? Just can’t handle the stress anymore, and really want help? Book online counselling now and find ways forward before burnout hits.]
Like the overload? Or even… addicted?
Do you wake up determined to have a focussed day? Check social media just once, then decide to glance ever so briefly a cute cat video? Until suddenly it’s five o’clock, and your day has passed yet again in a haze of distraction?
The primitive part of our brain responds not just to threats, but also to opportunities. So each time we respond to a modern day ‘opportunity’ like, say, a text? It rewards us.
Each time you change activities your brain responds with a feel-good dopamine hit.
So yes, you could argue that information overloading can improve your moods. Except for the minor fact that it’s addictive. Each stimulating distraction adds dopamine, until you are on the addictive ‘dopamine loop’. The true danger of cat videos….
The negative effects of information overload
A reality check is needed when it comes to our addiction to information. What’s the real cost of information overload?
1. Cue memory loss.
Anthony Wagner, professor of psychology at Stanford University, headed up a report that summarised over a decade of findings around media multitasking and cognition. One of his biggest conclusions? Those who often use many kinds of media at the same time achieved significantly poorer results on easy memory tasks.
And Wagner drives the point home in an interview for ‘The Stanford Report‘, saying that, ‘There’s not a single published paper that shows shows a significant positive relationship between working memory capacity and multitasking’.
2. You become LESS efficient.
Psychology has long been fascinated by the effects of multitasking on the brain, with studies going as far back as the 1990s.
And the conclusion is always the same . We pay a price for multi-tasking, called the ‘switching cost’. And that price is time. The time to change attention and refocus, but also the time to correct mistakes, which we make more of when multi-tasking.
The American Psychological Association (APA) point out that, “Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks….. as much as 40 per cent of someone’s productive time.”
3. You make bad decisions about important things.
Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist and author of the book, “The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload”, explains in his book that multitasking involves a lot of fast, little decisions. We decide if we are going to ignore or answer a text or email, what tone we’ll use in our response, if we’ll let ourselves be distracted by a silly video.
And these little decisions take a toll. “Decision making is hard on your neural resources, and little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones,” Levitin explains.”After making a lot of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important.”
Can information overload cause mental health issues?
Stress is the obvious one. If you are already dealing with life stressors such as a divorce or debt, the stress of information overload in the workplace might push you from just being stressed to having anxiety.
Already prone to anxiety? Information overload can make things worse. Anxiety involves distorted thinking that sees danger everywhere, constantly triggering our ‘fight or flight’ mode and leaving us on the ‘cortisol rollercoaster’ of highs and lows. Information overload has also been found to trigger cortisol, making any anxiety you already have that much worse.
Self-esteem can also be affected. Feel like everyone around you at work is so focussed and capable, and you are the only one who can’t seem to cope? It’s bound to leave you feeling a little ‘less than’.
And if what you are overloading on in your spare time is social media, then you won’t be helping things. Studies show that the self-comparison that social media leads to, even if we know better, directly affects our confidence.
Navigating info overload can particularly kill your confidence if have adult ADHD. The modern workplace can leave you feeling that your natural talents, say, brainstorming, creativity, and lateral thinking, are being drowned out in a need for data upkeep your brain isn’t designed to meet.
All these things — anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, adult ADHD — can be contributing factors to a case of depression or burnout.
And depression and information overload can become a symbiotic relationship, if not a positive one. We overload on info as a distraction from depression, which can then leave us feeling worse instead of better.
How to handle information overload?
Aside from the obvious, if highly unpopular, idea of monitoring your screen time? Or the logic notion of doing one thing at a time? What can be done? There are tactics that can help. Sign up to our blog now to know when our connected piece is released, ‘How to Handle Information Overload”.
Want help to be more focused? Harley Therapy connects you with career counsellors and ADHD therapists in central London locations. Not in London? Our booking site connects you to registered therapists UK-wide, and online counsellors you can contact no matter where you live in the world.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and mentor, with training in person-centred counselling and coaching. She is a definite information addict. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy