5 Remedies for Overwhelming Indigestion of the Mind

art of information overload by Claire Downey

Information Overload artwork by Claire Downey.

Do You Feel Like You Can’t Keep Up?

Do clients and staff expect instant answers from you? Do you find you’re not getting to your most important projects — seeking new business or launching a new service — because you feel overwhelmed with your daily work?

Do you sometimes feel like you can’t keep up?

Infoglut is like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet, but you’re on a diet and yet cannot resist eating a little bit of everything under the protective glass of the food table. Afterwards, you feel all-full (awful).

Perhaps you’re dealing with information overload.

If so, let’s see how the ways we respond to information overload are hurting, rather than helping, us.

How Our Reactions Make the Problem Worse

1. We (Try to) Multi-task

Our ability to multi-task – to do more than one task at a time – is untrue, according to Daniel Levitin. He is author of The Organized Mind and professor of psychology at Behavioural Neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal.

We think we’re multi-tasking, because it’s how we address the 100+ emails in our inbox, or the piles of follow-up folders on our desk, but what we are actually doing is “sequential tasking.” Our brains are rapidly shifting from one thing to the next – doing it quickly and seamlessly that we don’t know it is happening. As a result, attention is fractionated into 3 to 5 second bits. We’re not able to sustain attention on any one thing, said Levitin.

Attempting to multi-task can release the hormone cortisol, which is one way multi-tasking is responsible for the mental fog we feel, he said.

You’re Not Saving Time

You’re wasting time. Levitin said the reason we think we can multi-task to get many things done is an illusion. The brain is good at self-illusion.

According to Levitin, at the end of the day, people multi-tasking were getting less done by any measure than the people working and focused on one task at a time, based on a number of productivity studies.

Other experts have chimed in and agree. Derek Dean, former director of McKinsey’s San Francisco office, and Caroline Webb, a principal of the company’s London office, provide comprehensive insights on why multi-tasking is a terrible coping mechanism in Recovering from Information Overload. Multi-tasking hampers creativity, makes us anxious and is addictive.

Multi-tasking is ineffective and harmful, then why do we (try to) do it?

“Most of us would probably acknowledge that multitasking lets us quickly cross some of the simpler items off our to-do lists. But it rarely helps us solve the toughest problems we’re working on. More often than not, it’s procrastination in disguise,” Dean and Webb said.

3. We Get Interrupted

Note to Self podcast offered “a week of challenges for its listeners to help information overload disappear” earlier this year.

The project, called Infomagical, helped listeners think about the information they are consuming online and why. Host Manoush Zomorodi talked with experts in neuroscience, social psychology, business, anthropology and software design.


Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California-Irvine, talked about interruptions and their negative effects in the workplace. Mark said the most affected population is information workers, where they work in a modern workplace that feeds on interruptions.

In her work at the lab, Mark found the more often people switch their attention, the higher their stress level. There was no significant difference in number of errors between those who were interrupted and those who were not.

You know you’re going to be continually interrupted so you compensate by working faster, but the cost of that is stress,” Mark said.

But who is the person that interrupts you the most?


3. We Self-interrupt

Stop blaming your co-workers, your boss, your children or your clients for most of your interruptions. The majority is caused by you. This is a “pattern of self-interruption,” said Mark.

Her lab research showed when external interruptions are pretty high in a particular hour, even when the levels of external interruptions wane in the next hour, that people self-interrupt. It seems your brain is depleting neural resources as you deal with interruptions and thus producing sluggishness and the tendency to more frequent self-interruptions.

artwork by gapingvoid.com
Picasso on action by gapingvoid.com.

Don’t read one more blog or book about it. Reading more information will contribute to your feelings of being overwhelmed.

It’s time to help yourself. Your agency doesn’t have to live in a frazzled space every day. Let’s look at five remedies that are proven to work, IF you do them.

“(The solutions) are devilishly difficult to implement, and getting more so all the time,” Dean and Webb wrote.

What Can You Do About It? 

1. What’s Your Goal?

I took the weeklong Infomagical Challenges last February. I highly recommend the podcast series. You can listen here.

What was most helpful for me? I became aware of the choices I was making, sometimes consciously (must find out more about Christopher Guest’s latest mockumentary movie) and sometimes aimlessly (how New Jersey cities’ populations change from day to night).

Participating in the daily challenges showed me how I contribute to my pain of information overload.

One takeaway from the show: Set up an “Information Filter.” Be more intentional before you look up information online. Before you click open your Web browser or check your email, try to be more aware of the choice you make. Ask yourself, “Will this action help me reach my goal?” Think of this goal as a way to filter the information you’re seeking. You may decide to not go online and work on something else that’s more productive. You might avoid going into time-wasting, mind-numbing internet rabbit holes. 

2. Do a Single Task Until It’s Done

Okay, I know this doesn’t sound realistic for a business, but think about how you can commit to this some time each day. Maybe start with complex projects, you know, the ones that require your energy as well as your mind.

Do one task at a time. Avoid multi-tasking while performing the tasks. An American Psychological Study has shown brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of productive time.

Single tasking is a powerful habit, but it’s not easy. To start, find an issue at work you need to focus on. Commit to working on this issue for 30 minutes. Signal to your co-workers and boss that you’re not to be interrupted due to working on an important project and tell them when you’ll be available. (Maybe you need to come into work before office hours to execute this experiment.) Silence your smartphone, have your phone calls go into voice-mail and turn off notifications on your computer.

Get to work. Work on a single task and do it only until it’s done. Try this and see how productive a ½ hour can be.

3. Take Breaks and Naps

During breaks, our mind wanders into a daydreaming mode that helps us to be more creative and improve our problem solving ability, according to Levitin. Studies have shown workers who take regular breaks are more productive and create better quality work. What’s a good rule of thumb? Take a 15 minute break every two hours.

The attention switching we do during multitasking depletes glucose, which is the fuel our brain neurons need to function. Short naps allow the glucose level to replenish. A 10 to 15 minute nap during the day can equal a 1 ½ hours of extra sleep the night before and raise one’s effective IQ by 10 points, Levitin said.

4. Set Productivity Hours

If you’re the boss, you can reset the framework at the office. Set guidelines of handling interruptions. You can schedule certain days and times for productivity hours — times of undistracted, sustained concentration. Perhaps a person can be assigned to answer the phone while the others focus on highly important work.

What to do if you want to be accessible to certain people all the time? You may need to be creative with this. You can set up a private email account and give the address to only a few people who need to reach you urgently – immediate family members, your boss, employees who report directly to you, and key clients. Inform them to only contact you on this private email if it’s urgent.

5. Delegate Information Filtering to the Team

Stephen Covey, whose book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People sold more than 25 million copies, said a professional’s long-term competence and confidence is dependent on staying current. But sometimes we procrastinate this activity because it’s not urgent. Okay, I’m guilty of this. I have about 207 unread articles in my “Saved for Later” folder in Feedly. But I’ve read all the ones about information overload!

He recommended what I call a “Team Information Filter.” When you have team members, you’re fortunate. You don’t have to keep abreast of the latest information on your own. You can enlist the support of each team member to screen information. Covey recommended a systematic approach to catching up on industry information be set up among your staff. Team members could be assigned certain topics to study. If the information would be valuable to everyone, they could teach others at a staff meeting.

Take, for example, search engine optimization practices. One person would study different blogs, books or attend seminars on the latest information about SEO. Then he would teach the other members the material they need to know at future meetings. If the topic is vital for everyone to read and understand, he would share with everyone the key link with a message, “Must read.”

Share the wisdom and save everyone’s sanity.

Start Being Aware

One reason clients hire us is because they expect us to keep up with information that will help their companies’ products and services grow. In essence, we are their “marketing know-how filter.” Just mention adding social media to their marketing, and unless they do social media well, they may delay your recommendation, in part, because they are overwhelmed.

We help our clients cope with information overload.

We can help them better by becoming more aware of the choices we make about consuming information.

Anyone who works in an agency knows that doing these five remedies would be tough when daily chaos is the norm. But it’s not an excuse to give up on the information challenge. Our creativity, accuracy and effectiveness may suffer, and don’t forget how being overwhelmed increases stress. And isn’t your workplace stressful enough?

Not every task at work needs to be done instantly. Some tasks do not need to be done at all. And not all information is equal. Levitin said YouTube uploads 6,000 hours of new video every day. Do we really feel watching every hour of YouTube is worth our time?

What do you say?