To understand how and why we experience information overload we need to recognize that the main reason we collect information is to influence ourselves and others. Not entirely unrelated is the fact that one of the most important factors in attaining happiness is having influence over others. Without it we lose our raison d’être. This is also essentially the driver for technology. Edison and the countless others who pursued the invention of the light bulb, for example, did so not to illuminate dark rooms, but to enable people to do things at night that they could not or could less easily do before. In other words, the interest of the inventor is to change or improve behavior – to influence.
The actual volume of information is completely irrelevant; therefore, complaining that there is too much information, or not being able to find relevant information only serves to underline one’s misconception of information overload. It is not that there is too much information or too much coming at us; instead, it is how we attract and control the information, and ultimately how easily we feel that we can influence others with the use of this information that determines whether we feel overloaded or not.
Whether there are ten billion terabytes of data available to you on Monday, and a billion times that on Tuesday is inconsequential to you as an individual. Trying to categorize things or color code them is far too daunting a task, and profiling (I liked these books, therefore there is a 92% chance that I will like these others) is a step in the right direction, but it is far too flat and one-dimensional to rely upon. For example, I often buy a business books through Amazon, and once I bought some kitchen utensils for my sister, so my recommendations are always about business literature and cooking items – and almost equally so. If you knew me as a person you would see how poorly this kind of profiling addresses my needs because the influencers are monochromatic.
The point is that in our efforts to attract and control information, our focus should be on the customer, whether that is an actual customer, your spouse, your children, friends or whomever you are trying to influence in your life – even yourself. Once you are deliberate and clear in your intention, you will attract the right information and filter out the waste. So rather than focusing on the mechanism (the tool that we think will solve all our problems, the rating system, the color coding, etc.) we need to turn our attention to our intention.
Getting too many e-mails is essentially a problem of filtering (reduction of spam) and magnetism (you attract mails from people because they believe you are either interested in what they have to say) or because you can help them solve their problems (in order to influence others). Once you have a good spam and pseudo-spam filter and have broadcast your intentions clearly, i.e. “I don’t ever respond to Cc: mail”, or clarified your intentions as a company by strengthening core values, much of that noise goes away. The rest should be handled systematically instead of cherry picking, but that is the story for another day.
The more generalized your attraction to information is (subscribing to blogs, on-line magazines, RSS feeds etc. because you want to stay abreast of current trends), the more diffuse your experience of that information is and the more ambivalent and targeted you become. Likewise, the more precise you are in proactively searching for relevant information based on clear intention, the less you need to reactively filter. It is not a technological problem – it is YOUR problem. Once you recognize that, instead of waiting for the magic tool, you will stop feeling overloaded.
In the end, your intention determines the scope of your war on information overload. Generalists will be deluged with the cacophony of nonformation and expert influencers will not be distracted by the noise. It is a choice, not a tool or technique.