The shift from what used to be a traditional industry to what is now known as the information or digitized age has undoubtedly revolutionized the world. In today’s knowledge-based society, we are surrounded by a high-tech global economy that allows individuals the flexibility of ‘simplifying’ their lives with unrestricted access to information. The ability to efficiently find, critically analyze and intellectually use reliable information is a major factor to profit making. Ironically however, overexposure to that information, leads to information overload and its detrimental effects. 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 becomes challenging.This paper is intended to be a multi-dimensional exploration of Information Overload in the workplace, incorporating a mixture of studies and opinions presented by various experts. It makes the argument that, professionals in the workplace today are bombarded with so much data than the ability to process. When this happens, Information Overload sets in which ends up interfering with the ability to learn and engage in creative problem-solving. In analyzing Information Overload from a variety of perspectives; we can expect to discover that it is a significant, yet surmountable, problem worth acting and reflecting upon.
Information these days is no longer about facts and figures. It is now being perceived as ‘noise.’ Professionals in today’s workplace are being bombarded with an avalanche of information, which far surpasses their ability to logically process. As a result, productivity and over-all health tends to suffer. Technological advancement has made information almost limitless and difficult if not impossible to keep up with than in previous generations. Knowledge workers are now processing a lot more information and this, coupled with other personal obligations and commitments can be overwhelming.
Originating as a debilitating trend in the 1990s, information overload has exacerbated in the information age of the twenty-first century. According to the October 2012 edition of the IEEE PCS Professional Engineering Communication Series: Information Overload: An International Challenge For Professional Engineers and Technical Communicators (p.55), this deluge of data and digital information inundate professionals and non-professionals alike, leading to the phenomenon of information overload. The writers, Strother, Ulijn and Fazal are of the view that information overload “places workers and managers worldwide in a chronic state of mental overload. It exacts a massive toll on employee productivity and causes significant personal harm, while organizations ultimately pay the price with extensive financial loss.” When workers are mentally overtasked, productivity in the workplace suffers.
The first recorded use of the phrase Information Overload however, was by the futurologist Alvin Toffler in bestselling 1970 book, Future Shock, in which he predicted that the rapidly increasing amounts of information being produced would eventually cause people problems (p. 240-241). He believed the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation”—future shocked.
Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he popularized the term Information Overload.
Toffler’s prediction over thirty years ago has been corroborated by several writers including Torkel Klingberg in his book, The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory (2009). Klingberg asserts that our brains have limited capacity for processing information and that, as advances in information technology and communication supply us with information at an ever accelerating rate, the limitations of our brains become all the more obvious (p.93-94). He makes reference to a 2005 Harvard Business Review article entitled, “Overload Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform,” written by Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell. In the article, Hallowell is of the view that modern office work, and the concomitant demands of multi-tasking, has turned a lot of very competent and steady workers – even executives – into frenzied underachievers. He continues that the brain is operating in overload and unable to process new input effectively. While the ability to multi-task has become a pre-requisite in today’s competitive work environment, it places significant pressure on workers to perform, which ends up causing a lot of stress.
James McGill Professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, Daniel Levitin disagrees with proponents who warn that the information expansion has gone too far and will make us stupid. He counteracts these arguments by saying that, brains evolve to focus on one thing at a time and filter out distraction. Yet he admits that this “attentional system” is outdated when confronted with today’s avalanche of input. Drawing upon the results of psychological research, Levitin explains how the mental processes of attention, working memory, and categorization limit the amount of information that we can take in and remember.
When asked if humans are living in an age of too much information, Levitin responds by referencing the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska on March 24, 1989 as an example of what happens when people are overworked, sleep deprived, over tasked and have exceeded their limits of attention capacity. He continues that, when information comes in faster than we can process, attention then becomes a limited source. The expectations of bosses, co-workers, friends and family are greater now than they were before, making amount of information we have to negotiate daily, overwhelming. In the article, THE ORGANIZED MIND: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (2014), Levitin asserts that, “while our brains evolved to take on the daunting challenges of life in the Stone Age, they now have many redundant, maladaptive, and not quite finished features that clash with the huge demands placed on our attention by the modern world (p.276).”
Pundits like Guus Pijpers and Ann Blair also share their differing opinions. In Pijpers’ book, Information Overload: A System for Better Managing Everyday Data, (2010) he asserts that one is overloaded only to the extent that he or she wishes to be overloaded (p. 31). This raises the question of whether perceptions of information overload are related to the quantity or to the quality of the information received. By comparing Information Overload to drinking too much water, Pijpers argues that one cannot receive too much information. What people mean is that they do not have the capacity at that moment to process all of the information to the argument.
Echoing similar sentiments, History professor at Harvard University, Ann Blair also puts forth an excellent argument in her article, Information Overload, Then and Now, which appears in the 2010 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. She opines that, the flood of information brought to us by advancing technology is often accompanied by a distressing sense of “information overload,” yet this experience is not unique to modern times. She continues by saying that information overload was experienced long before the appearance of today’s digital gadgets dating back to the third and fourth centuries when books were one papyrus rolls, parchment manuscripts, or hand printed. Blair believes that a new technology does not act alone, after all, but in concert with our ambitions for it. Overload has long been fueled by our own enthusiasm — the enthusiasm for accumulating and sharing knowledge and information, and also for experimenting with new forms of organizing and presenting it.
The unfettered access to Web communication poses a problem for all information seekers, who face the task of looking for facts or data in a vast sea of information. For example, Social media provide new avenues for organizations to communicate with their supply chain and customers, but these same media can also engender a superfluity of information that employees must cope with. In the article, The Stress Potential of Social Media in the Workplace (2010), by Elaine Bucher, Christian Fieseler, and Anne Suphan, the writers take an objective look at Social media and how its use is impacting today’s workplace professionals. While they acknowledge the fact that social media may have enriched the communication profession with new and immediate ways of stakeholder interaction, they also draw attention to the fact that, along with new possibilities also come challenges. As professionals in today’s workplace engage in real-time conversation with their audiences on Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messaging, emails and the like, they also have to learn to mentally cope with the incessant supply of information, with an invasion of work matters into their personal lives and with changing work contents and structures.
E-mail was once considered to be the efficient and cost effective replacement for other communication. Cheapness, speed and handiness are benefits for this medium of communication. However, solicited and unsolicited e-mails fill up and clog inboxes, often significantly reducing efficiency in the workplace. In addressing this, Kim McMurtry in the article, Managing email overload in the workplace, is of the view that email overload is significant because of its impact to the health and well-being of the modern knowledge worker.
McMurtry mentions some advantages to the use of email as its ease of use and speed of delivery; however, these advantages he says, contribute to a high volume of messages sent and received daily. Furthermore, the accessibility to email from mobile devices and home computers can blur the line between work and personal life and thus extend the workday. The adverse effects of email overload he adds, include feelings of isolation, anxiety, and loss of control; longer workdays; faster pace of work; task fragmentation; and even what he calls, email addiction.
Another proponent, Tyler Tate, makes no qualms about the fact that, “we are drowning in information.” At home we sift through millions of products, recipes, and films to help us decide what to buy, what to eat and watch. In the workplace, we search through innumerable, emails, web pages, documents and structured data as we look for solutions to business and research problems. He continues in his article, Information wayfinding, that as more data surrounds, us we find ourselves growing in a state of “information anxiety.” Tate argues that overabundance of information creates a lack of attention and calls for a need to allocate attention efficiently among the over-abundance of information that might consume it. In an age where “Big Data” has become the buzzword, the fundamental question we need to ask is this, “How can we make ever-growing volumes of information assessable and useful to people without overwhelming them?”
Bree Nordenson believes the information age is defined by output: we produce far more information than we can possibly manage, let alone absorb. In the article, Overload, Nordenson postulates, that before the digital era, information was limited by our means to contain it. Publishing was restricted by paper and delivery costs; broadcasting was circumscribed by available frequencies and airtime. The Internet, on the other hand, has unlimited capacity at near-zero cost. Ours is a culture of multitasking, of cramming as many activities as possible into as short a period of time as possible. We drive and talk on our cell phones, check e-mail during meetings and presentations. All of these Nordenson believes; contribute to the stress levels of the workplace. Nordenson also refers to a recent report, Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us, in which the research firm Basex concluded that interruptions take up nearly 30 percent of a knowledge worker’s day and end up costing American businesses $650 billion annually.
The unlimited access to information as posited by San Francisco State University professors N. Kominiarczuk and M. Ledzińska causes the experience of feeling burdened by the large amounts of information we are exposed to.” They base their argument on previous research (Misra and Stokols, 2012), which found links between information overload and poor physical health, high perceived stress, poor memory recall, amongst others. They arrived at the conclusion that, the more stress one feels, the less happy one is with life. Based on this conclusion, the assumption is that, a person’s inability to properly deal with information overload can lead to stress in the life of the individual, ultimately causing unhappiness.
Maggie Jackson, journalist and author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, shares in her book about the downsides of the information age, and how the distractions from modern technologies lead to less critical thinking and less fulfilled lives. She is of the view that, amid the glittering promise of our technologies and scientific advances, we are nurturing a culture of social diffusion, intellectual fragmentation and sensory detachment. Our attention is scattered among the beeps and pings of a push-button world. In today’s speed driven work environment, workers typically change tasks every three minutes and once distracted, they take about 25 minutes to return to an interrupted task. Interruptions eat up more than two hours of an average worker’s day. She continues that we are less and less able to pause, reflect, and deeply connect in an environment that has become hyper-mobile and cyber-centric. These distractions portend what she believes to be a new dark age.
In the article, Coping with information Obesity: A diet for information professionals, Scott Brown examines causes, such as information overload, and additional factors that make information professionals prone to information obesity. The article concludes with practical and philosophical suggestions for preventing and coping with information obesity, and an overview of ideas around the concept of ‘slow information’. He defines information obesity as a “failure to turn information into knowledge, and thus use it to sustain our minds, bodies, lives and communities.” What Brown is stating with his analogy is that, just as too much food has the tendency to make a person obese, too much information can in fact also have a negative impact on professionals in the workplace.
In conclusion, while the ease with which information can be obtained may be a boon to the workplace and the internet as a tool to helping democratize our ability to contribute to a universal encyclopedia of experience and information, professionals cannot afford to be oblivious to the negative health impacts of Information Overload. We may become more efficient, savvy, and effective. But we should ensure that when we get to the top of the corporate ladder, our sanity would still be intact. As in all things, we need to maintain balanced approach when it comes to handling the competing priorities that exist in today’s dynamic work environment. We need to learn to prioritize, pause and take breaks but the best advice for now might be gleaned from Andy Kessler: “Productivity is really just doing the right things while doing things right.”
Blair, A. (2010). Information overload, then and now. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 57(15).
Brown, S. (2012). Coping with information obesity: A diet for information professionals. Business Information Review, 29(3), 168-173. doi: 10.1177/0266382112454355
Jackson, M. (2008). Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books.
Klingberg, Torkel. The overflowing brain: Information overload and the limits of working memory. Oxford UP, 2009.
Kominiarczuk, N., & Ledzińska, M. (2014). Turn down the noise: Information overload, conscientiousness and their connection to individual well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 60, S76.
Levitin, D. (2014). The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. Kirkus Reviews, LXXXII 82 (13), 276.
McMurtry, K. (2014). Managing email overload in the workplace. Performance Improvement, 53(7), 31-37
Nordenson, B. (2008). Overload! Columbia Journalism Review, 47(4), 30-42.
Pijpers, G. (2010). Information overload: A system for better managing everyday data. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Strother, J. B., Ulijn, J. M., & Fazal, Z. (2012). Section 2. In Information overload: An international challenge to professional engineers and technical communicators. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Tate, Tyler. Information wayfinding. Jan/Feb2014, Vol. 38 Issue 1, p16-21. Business Information Review, 29(3), 168-173.
Toffler, A. (1970). Future shock. New York: Random House.