Information Overload

info overload

Why It Happens and How to Stop It In It’s Tracks

According to the journal Science, we have to process five times more information today than in 1986…

This means, to be successful in the information age, we have to give our attention on 5x more ”˜stuff’ from day to day than just a few decades ago.

Because the hours in a day haven’t exactly been getting longer, this leads many to attempt to get more done in less time by simultaneously juggling tasks.

Multitasker’s attempts to get more done have mostly been in vain.

Over the last 20 years, a great deal of research has found that people perform better when they are able to focus their attention on one task at a time.

Switching Costs of Multitasking <== See Research Here

Why is this?

Why is it so important to have nothing but the present moment on your mind?

Why are humans not able to multitask effectively?

Let’s start to answer these questions by looking back… way back.

From our oldest living ancestors 2,500,000 years ago to about 8,000 BC, life was unimaginably different.

Mankind was becoming more modern in stuttering fits and starts. But, over all, the hunter gather societies had a relatively consistent lifestyle.

There were less obligations for pre-modern man.

Shelter, food, water and tribe social dynamics were their main concerns.

A to-do list would not have been a useful tool for pre-modern man because their daily tasks were limited.

They were also more obvious… kill wooly mammoth.

Our brains evolved to handle this type of lifestyle.

Then around 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age, the agricultural revolution began in modern-day Iraq along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Roaming tribes settled down and started to domesticate plants and animals.

Tools improved. Villages and towns formed. Barter between villages lead to trade between cities. Writing was invented. Empires rose and fell. Ships were built that could circumnavigate the globe.

And still, by 1790… right after the war for independence, 90% of the US population were farmers.

Percentage of Farmers in the US

Source: USDA

So, back of the napkin math will tell you, the hunter gatherer stage represents 99.56% and farming represents .39% of human existence on this planet.

That leaves .05% to relatively modern era of the 1790’s to present day.

If humanity’s existence was stretched out in distance and all of our time on this planet equaled 1 mile, the modern era would be equal to 31 inches… the last 100 years the equivalent of 2.5 inches.

It was not that life was easier for our ancestors.

To quote 16th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in many periods throughout history, “life of man was… nasty, brutish and short.”

Nor is modern man superior in intellect.

We are working with the same hardware, it’s just that our society has programed us a bit differently.

A hunter on the Sahara 20,000 years ago likely had a much more developed hippocampus, the area of the brain that is responsible for spacial navigation, than the average 21st century human.

Just as years of reading and writing has developed the neuro-pathway density of your frontal lobe.

However… modern society has been built to suit it’s own economic needs and not the needs of a brain that took millennia to develop.

And neuroplasticity, the ability for the brain to improve its function by creating more neural connections, has its limits.

Enter the Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik Effect, first discovered by Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik in the late 1920’s, states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

Zeigarnik’s research was sparked by her professor, pioneering applied psychologist Kurt Lewin, observing that waiters tended to remember the orders of customers who had not paid their checks better than those who had.

In turn, the stronger memory of uncompleted tasks leads to a tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about unfinished work.

How many tasks do you have incomplete at this moment? Calls unanswered, emails unwritten, meetings unplanned, jobs not delegated…

Furthermore, when do you know when a task is complete? A sales letter could always be more compelling, a meeting better planned, the new budget more thorough…

The volume and complexity of jobs comes with the territory of modern information work.

Work no longer has clear boundaries.

Farmers got up at sunrise to milk the goats, till the fields, feed the pigs… they then turned in when the sun went down exhausted but accomplished.

Even industrial workers had a firm sense of the inputs and outputs of their labor.

Bolt this, box that, forge the steel, build the railroad.

And there were clear ending points.

The crops were harvested. A car was manufactured. The railroad connected to Atlantic with the Pacific.

Farmers and industrial workers were reasonably confident that what they were doing in that moment is just what needed to be done.

But you are stuck with unfinished tasks and abandoned goals… also called open loops.

Your brain cannot let these open loops go until they are closed.

Sometimes the intrusive ”˜Zeigarnik’ recollections happen at the right moment.

You remember to pick up the dry cleaning when you are driving by the cleaners.

Other times… not so much.

You remember you need new batteries for the flashlight when the power goes out.

And sometimes the distracting thoughts crop up at times that are downright inconvenient.

You remember you have that report to prepare while you are trying to focus on drafting a presentation…

As a result of the ”˜Zeigarnik’ memory:

  • ==> your mind drifts to the unfinished task
  • ==> you then lose focus on the current project
  • ==> this makes you anxious about all the other assignments on your plate
  • ==> the anxiety saps your energy
  • ==> you take a coffee break to artificially boost your energy levels instead of finishing the draft you had just started

Frustrating, huh?

So what can close these DAMNED open loops?

And how can you be confident that what you are doing at the moment is just what is needed?

The first option is obvious.

Option 1: Get every undertaking in your life finished.

Presto! No more open loops.

But how reasonable it this?

I am guessing, if time stopped and you did every big and small project on your plate, it would take you half a lifetime to get everything done to your high standards.

What’s the other option?

Option 2: Convince your nagging brain that everything is okay.

It needs to be convinced you’ve got this handled.

And your brain is smart. It won’t let stuff go just because you tell it to. The only way to convince it is to actually have everything handled.

We get it handled by… writing obligations down.

That’s it.

Well, almost.

You need to write the task down in a place you will be able to reference and review it easily.

Sorry… your brain won’t trust a note scribbled on an Arby’s napkin and left under the seat of your car.

What you write down also needs to be an action the brain knows it can handle.

For example, replace the tires might be something you write down.

But you are still giving your brain too much work when it sees that task.

What kind of tires do I need? Where should I go to get them replaced? When do I have time to go to the shop?

The brain still has these nagging questions and will in turn nag you every time it sees the written to-do.

It will also randomly decide to remind you when you are trying to focus on other work.

So, in addition to writing the task down, you will need to decide what actions need to take place for you to accomplish your objective and write those steps down too.

It might look a little something like this:

Replace tires.

  • Ask Zack about the name of the shop he likes.
  • Look up mechanics number online.
  • Call mechanic to find out types of tires and prices.
  • Make appointment and put into calendar.

Now your brain is a little more satisfied. It might be even more comfortable if you put some dates with it.

Replace tires before road trip on 8/16.

  • Ask Zack about the name of the shop he likes today, 7/13.
  • Look up mechanics number online: (303)-###-####
  • Call mechanic to find our types of tires and prices at lunch.
  • Make appointment and put into calendar.

Your brain will really leave you alone if you set up reminders.

Replace tires before road trip on 8/16.

  • Ask Zack about the name of the shop he likes today, 7/13.
  • Look up mechanics number online. (303)-###-####
  • Call mechanic to find our type of tires and prices at lunch.
  • Make appointment and put into calendar and set up two pop up reminders.

Rinse and repeat for all the other tasks you’ve got and your mind will officially leave you alone.

“This gal/guy has their stuff handled. Let’s focus on what we are doing right now.”

You must write assignments and actions down so you can focus your energy strategically on one task at a time without letting obligations fall through the cracks because that’s how we are evolutionarily primed to work.

Luckily, there are a number of tools out there to help us capture and organize your information.

Below is a list of the best phone, computer and analog apps you can use to quickly capture ALL of your ”˜stuff’.

Universal capture with…

Spring Pad | WonderList | Trello |Evernote | Omnifocus |Todoist | Google Drive | VodooPad | Remember The Milk | Nozbe | Workflowy | Flipboard |Teuxduex | Pen and Paper | Bullet Journal Method | Physical Inbox | Voice Memos | Dragon Speak

I hope this article has helped your understanding of the why and the how behind handling information overload through writing lists of your obligations and the actions needed to fulfill them and focusing on completing a single task at a time.