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Information Overload — The current employer we all are working for!

Originally published on merrative.com

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What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? What’s the first thing you do when you are bored of watching an episode of a television show you have begun to get bored of? What’s the first thing you do when you lose interest in an office meeting you don’t feel too interested in?

If the answer to all those questions is online browsing, your brain is probably asking you to stop. Just like an elevator cannot take more than a certain number of people and signals “overload”, think of your brain as that elevator, maybe you’ve put too much in it. And, you’re not alone in this.

Information overload, believe it or not, has an actual Wikipedia page which states the following — “is the difficulty in understanding an issue and effectively making decisions when one has too much information about that issue.” No wonder it’s rather derogatorily also known as Infobesity. Well, that’s a debate on another day.

Professional Brain Frog

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The amount of information that I am swamped with definitely has great potential in terms of the vast learning possibilities. But, the downside is me trying to learn more than I can and sometimes competing against nothingness. Since there is practically no limit to how much you can learn, you inevitably go out and explore so that you can keep yourself abreast about your job at hand.

Researchers have conveyed that too much information and its role in the interruption of our daily lives can affect productivity and efficiency at work. In fact, there are surveys where people took an average of nearly 25 minutes to return to a work task after an e-mail interruption. That’s bad news for both individuals and their organizations.

With the information floodgates almost not sleeping 24/7, it’s really difficult getting the work done without being distracted. It’s not just the biggest “attention seeker” i.e. emails, there are others as well which can take you away and transport you to a world in which you had no clue how you landed up there. Social media notifications do a great job of either reminding you what you posted and how people are reacting to it or telling you about a certain image you had uploaded many summers ago. It is also good at reminding you how you should relive that day yet again or can simply ask you if you know a certain somebody who you have no idea about. One must admit, it’s definitely fun to look back in life or to share your world with others sometimes, but that’s where the algorithm succeeds — because even if I am sharing my life once a month, the total information feels like an overload cumulatively.

The problem arises when you are flooded with such information daily and there is a brain frog where you have very little to contribute to your work as most of your creative juice has been utilized in either thinking of the best English to use to reply or in judging artistic filters for your evening hangout post. Well, the chorus in which the overload song plays out can be extremely out of tune sometimes.

In an article in Harvard Business Press, it's mentioned that Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist, and expert on attention-deficit disorders, argues that the modern workplace induces what he calls “attention deficit trait,” with characteristics similar to those of the genetically based disorder. Author Linda Stone, who coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe the mental state of today’s knowledge workers, says she’s now noticing — get this — “e-mail apnea”: the unconscious suspension of regular and steady breathing when people tackle their e-mail.

It also states some shocking facts which had blown me away, like —

“Knowledge workers average 20 hours a week managing e-mail”

“Information overload costs the U.S. economy $900 billion a year”

“60% of computer users check e-mail in the bathroom”

“A typical knowledge worker turns to e-mail 50 to 100 times a day”

“85% of computer users say they would take a laptop on vacation”

“Employees consider 1 in 3 e-mails unnecessary”

To conclude, there’s no denying that the information we have around us is overflowing and it’s definitely taking a toll on our professional prowess. It really boils down to us as professionals of how much do we want us to be affected by it. Whether it’s having too much information to finish a certain work or information that takes us away from our current work, overloading is here to stay and it’s going to be very interesting to see what we do about it.

Twitter and its grand scheme of things

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While we ponder over that thought, here’s a social media app that has taken the first few steps towards managing the overloading of information in a manner that sounds both fair and pragmatic.

According to Forbes in early June, Twitter announced that it “will test a new feature that will prompt users to open up a link to an article before sharing it”, which sounds like a great move to combat the spread of fake news and misinformation.

It’s also not a secret anymore that Twitter displayed fact-check tags on two of President Donald Trump’s tweets that had “misleading information regarding mail-in ballots and voter fraud.” The micro-blogging site also launched a new feature where users could limit who could respond to their tweets. We all know that misinformation can really turn into a smear campaign and sometimes beyond that as well if you are famous on Twitter and all of this can be a lethal combination of overloaded information and hatred.

Twitter hatred stems from its trending hashtags and the basic reason why it would become a popular hashtag is only that people have a lot to say on that topic. Since all the voices are not responsible enough to at least fact check before sharing a piece of information, it snowballs into not only an overload, it becomes a free marketing campaign. Be it the 2014 (and 2019) India elections, Pulwama attack, Covid-19, Amazon jungle fire, CAA protests, etc., the world was glued on to the latest from these pieces of news and there was an overload of it. But, what we should think about more than anything else is the fact that these strings of information can lead the news narrative into space where people can start believing something incorrect.

Who knows, these could be the reasons why social platforms like Twitter to be slightly more responsible and not just be armchair activists who believe in changing the world the wrong way or could just pretend to do so. The social media company pulled all stops to have a better grip on its policies amidst a lot of hues and cries over fake news, misinformation, and no the infamous “Twitter army.” All of the above malices have been a crucial contributor towards overloading what we consume and mislead us to a path of incorrect information. Twitter’s acts of keeping the core intact in fact-checking have been received very well by one and all and is a subtle way of saying to all of us — “think before you share”.

#NoEmailDay

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Let me ask you a question — How many emails do you receive in a day? If your answer is “oh many” or “countless” or even “quite a lot” you might be thrilled if I told you that I am going to give you a “magic day” where you will receive no emails whatsoever. Right?

In an interview with Huffington Post, Australia, Founder, and CEO of Inventium, Amantha Imber mentioned that she had once jokingly asked one of her clients who receive 350 emails per day how does she manage to get work done! While we are more than curious to know the answer and appreciate the logic behind the question, the bigger elephant in the room is the fact that so much overloading information is constantly making its way into your inbox only for you to be able to scramble through your work the entire day rather than be fully constructive.

So, she and her team banned emails for a whole day. Yes, they “banned” it! While this may sound anything from outlandish to impossible, they actually did it and found out the results later on. Here are some of the outcomes of blocking something so important to our work (or so we think!) — a) People were more in control of the task at hand, b) The team was more focussed c) Emails multiply themselves, so the lesser the emails, well the lesser the emails, d) People started disabling notifications e) People finished work faster, etc. The best part was they are planning for this initiative every month now!

While we are all aware that the work cannot go on without email exchanges however it’s sometimes important to have that downtime to just focus on the work that’s in hand. Email checking, drafting, and answering can give you small victories which may be motivation “tablets” we need on a field day but when it takes over/overloads itself and presses itself on top of the daily work, it's time we should show it the stop sign. So, use the “away” button often, use the “out-of-office” option often, and use the unload option often because overloading of the influx of information can kill productivity.

Death by Social Media

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Speaking of the influx of information, we cannot leave social media out when we are talking about an overload of information sometimes (or more than just sometimes) too vile and lacking complete integrity. Social media is the beast that has like it or not, taken over our lives. We depend on it for a host of uses including connecting with friends and colleagues, sharing content, advertising your product, and literally “social networking.” I really have no intention to put our socials down by saying nasty things about it but we cannot ignore the topic of excess information about every little thing.

One can surely argue that it’s completely up to you if you want to stay away from it. And that’s true to a certain extent. But what happens if you actually stay away from it? Have you tried it? Well, some people are ok with it, made their peace with it. Famous stand-up comedian Rohan Joshi once said in an interview on the online entertainment channel, FilmCompanion that he has quit the habit of reading news out of notifications that buzz on our phones. He has developed the habit of reading newspapers and consuming news the next morning rather than being a part of an instant news format to avoid knee-jerk reactions.

While one can contest his decision as archaic, but it might help him be more productive and living in the moment rather than involving in dialogues and a constant “share-game” amongst friends and family. In times like these, when every piece of news comes first on social media and it blows out of proportion sometimes, restraint can be a great virtue. Are we exercising the basic idea of researching or we just blindly over-populate the information circle with baseless allegations? I would go with the latter! if the news is depressing, the information is so overloaded that it can take you for an anxiety tour. I know friends who stopped checking their WhatsApp after any national news broke out simply to avoid the crowded space of opinion givers.

Reddit has a strong algorithm against posts that don’t suit their scheme of things. They can be the fastest to remove your post. Its algorithm assigns a score to every post. A post’s score prioritizes whatever has the most “upvotes” and the fewest “downvotes.” That simple notion produces curated, timely and meaningful information that, coupled with a strong commenting system, creates a wealth of discussion. This also prevents overflowing information from burdening the entire community with overlapping and bizarre content.

There’s no denying that social media is a necessary evil and we love to spend time on it. But, when it comes to restraint and making a decision about overloaded information, we’re failing as a community and that needs some check. We don’t know how but we surely know the time is now.

The problem of plenty — not a great thing with COVID journalists

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Now is also the time to choose the news you want to hear. All of us are coronavirus experts and reporters today. We are self-proclaimed, entitled and we know more than each other. We invent vaccines every day, we like to keep our world knowledge updated about the countries doing better than us and we also love to talk about it for hours, whether on the phone or social media. Is there something we are not doing? Maybe, taking care of ourselves and our family. Collectively speaking, we can do better, we surely can, not just in terms of taking care of each other but also to sometimes keep the news from being overloaded out there.

Think of this news flash — Coronavirus vaccine found! What would you do? You could simply copy the link and send it to your family and friends. Do you read it? Maybe the first two lines. Do you fact check it? Do you do a bit of research? Do you check the authenticity of the website? I am guessing the answers are tilting towards a no. That’s because we might of guilty of contributing to the COVID confusion ourselves. Waking up and checking the world status and sharing the most sensational piece of news on this has been our hobby ever since the pandemic has forced us to stay indoors. Remember, we even clapped and banged our vessels from our balconies expecting the virus to go away? Well, the virus is still here, all we could do was overload each other’s WhatsApp with a lot of these videos!

I’m not saying sharing is the worst idea, in fact, that’s how I get to know important things honestly, but overloading someone with information about a disease so deadly it can kill you, is downright wrong. Now, a few days ago, we were discussing whether it’s airborne, overloading theories flooded our phones and experts took over. The words we’re looking for are restraint, patience, and research, the overloading can take a back step if we adapt these words in our vocabulary.

Skim reading — a new normal

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Information overload can also lead us to malpractices as readers, like skimming or scanning. Skimming (or skim reading is that way of reading where you focus on the main ideas of a text. You focus on the introduction, summaries, keywords in the paragraph, etc. It’s the new-age art of extracting the message of what the writer wants to say rather than reading the entire narration.

While this could be a handy tool to have especially when you appear for competitive examinations like IELTS where they ask you to skim through your comprehension passage rather than reading the entire note as the main goal is to look for the answer in a stipulated amount of time, however, if you’re only focussed to skim read even when let’s say you’re reading a book, it can be a dangerous habit to develop as you might miss out on finer details of a book or article and just walk away just with the outline. This is a direct threat to what is known as “deep reading” where you really immerse yourself in what the writer has to say.

But the problem is, the world is feeding us with so much information and sometimes on the same topic, that we are forced to skim read a bunch of things and make our own assumptions. Kind of a classic case of “Jack of all trade and master of none.” Look around, people are simply skim reading everything. Children on their iPads, students on their social media news feed, professionals doing the same while reading long emails, we’re always skimming and that’s something we’ve developed as a tribe in the last few years even though we are not chasing a certain target. It’s not the best example for readers as we surely want to deep read than skim read. The overloading information needs to be a smaller industry and I hope the skim reading will follow.

Newspapers say “Hi”

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Not very closely related to skimming but does have the common ground of reading, newspapers are the classing examples of how concise information of all kinds can be fitted into an 8-page printed document. Fashionably speaking, newspapers are read in the morning with your tea or while transit to your work which is exactly when you would want to wake up to the general knowledge about the world and be ready with your arguments at work!

Newspapers are still here, people still subscribe to them but I have seen a trend where the creases of the paper are intact even in the evenings. We simply do not have the time to glance through it the entire day! Funny how the previous generations would finish reading the entire newspaper before leaving for work. Can you imagine doing that today?

So, the idea is — newspapers feed us with just the right proportion of information every morning without clouding our thoughts with too much news and asking us for an opinion. Information is never overloaded (simply because there is no space) and it’s not provoking you to go ahead and share it so the cycle of overloaded news also is on the check. Of course, it has its limitations of not being able to digitally save it for the future, of not being able to share it instantly if you think it's not overloading someone, but the crux of the newspaper being the short news format is a great idea and its sad to see it’s popularity dipping. Bylanes of cities and towns of India still have notice boards where newspapers are glued for free reading, I guess we can always argue if news feed and overloading are new concepts after all!

At the end of the day —

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We cannot be ungrateful about the information that’s literally popping up on our phone screens. If you think about it, that’s pretty convenient. But, the issue is — are we consuming more than what we can? Is that affecting our efficiency and our judgment skills?

In a conversation with Forbes, Daniel Levitin, McGill University psychology professor and author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload” had said — “In 1976, there were 9,000 products in the average grocery store, and now it’s ballooned to 40,000 products. And yet most of us can get almost all our shopping done in just 150 items, so you’re having to ignore tens of thousands of times every time you go shopping,” He added — “I’ve read estimates there were 30 exabytes of information 10 years ago and today, there’s 300 exabytes of information. If you get much beyond that, you begin to exercise poorer judgment, you lose track of things and you lose your focus.”

So, what are we really wishing for, here? Do we want those notifications to die? Do we want to have a life without instant news? Do we want to go back to the 24-hour information consumption module? I am afraid the idea of a complete blackout from overloading information is also undesirable because now we’ve deep-dived into a pool of convenience where having the news with a search button is essential to our lives and having to really look for the news inside a newspaper isn’t what will give us comfort.

To be able to bring an equilibrium in this madness, we need to ensure we practice to learn about the information with complete dedication, think about if this is necessary to share and do a bit of fact-checking. There is absolutely nothing wrong with sharing information but we might have to be careful we do not add our voice in a place where there is already so much chaos. Hope the balance we are looking at isn’t a neverland with no routes to reach.

I’ll stop “overloading” you with my thoughts here!

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