A Quick-Start Guide to Avoiding Information Overload

Admit it: you’ve been there.

You’re researching and learning and finding information, but you feel as if you’re digging yourself into a hole.

There are conflicting opinions and conclusionless debates, and you don’t know what advice to take or what to believe. The worst part is that you genuinely want to do the right thing. You want to find what actually, truly works and run with it.

Yet no matter how much you read and watch and listen to, the clarity you were looking for when you started this discovery process just isn’t coming to you, and you just end up being more confused than you were when you started.

You have a nasty case of information overload – or, what I like to call researchitis.

In this guide, we’ll discuss information overload, how information can sometimes be a bad thing, and how to handle analysis paralysis that results from information overload.

Let’s dive in.

The Surprising Cost of Information Overload

Want to know what’s ironic about information overload?

Most of us who are overloading ourselves with information think we’re being productive. We’re learning, after all. What’s more productive than discovering what you don’t know?

Yet information overload paralyzes us into a state of inaction, and if we don’t use the information that we’re learning immediately, we lose up to 75% of that information from our memories and brains, making all of the information we’re taking in nearly useless.

Studies show that on interruptions alone (just one small aspect of information overload) costs the workforce over $1 Billion annually.

Consider what that does to you as an individual.

In the workplace, information overload has a scary negative impact on productivity, work satisfaction and the company’s performance as a whole. Do you think it’s any different for your personal work?

Information overload in your own life can cause:

  • Analysis paralysis: How often have you wanted to take action on something but have become overwhelmed with the information being thrown at you? You become paralyzed by all of the options, opinions, and conflicting information being thrown at you.
  • Productivity Issues: When we’re researching and absorbing information, we’re telling ourselves that we’re being productive. Because it genuinely feels as if we are! But you’re only being productive if you action what you’re learning.
  • Lack of Focus: Information overload through social media, email, and any number of dozens of causes is the biggest enemy of focus. If you can’t focus on a task, it takes far longer to get done. So writing an article that should have taken an hour turns into a four-hour project.
  • Our Inability to Be an Effective Teacher: Have you ever noticed that the best teachers are new to the concept they’re teaching about? If you’ve ever asked an expert to share how the stock market works, for instance, they will probably become flustered. It just works in their minds, and it’s difficult to explain how. They know too much. Teaching requires breaking things down to their basic core, and we do this best when we’re novices at an idea or concept.

As Herbert A. Simon says, “…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

With all of this new information about information overload, you might be wondering: At what point are you consuming too much information? How do you know the line between too much and not enough?

I’m arguing that you already have the information you need to get started. Anything that you consume from this point until you finish a specific project crosses over the line into “too much.” And once you start feeling overwhelmed or unsure of which direction to take, you’ve taken in too much.

How to Deal with Information Overload When You Are Paralyzed by Data

You’re in too deep.

You’ve already taken in too much information and now you’re paralyzed by analysis paralysis.

There are just so many opinions and studies and pieces of rebel information floating around in your brain that you don’t know which ones to focus on.

This can bring you to a stand-still. We’ve all been there. Here are the things that have worked for me when I’ve experienced information overload.

1. Restrict The Experts You Follow

Instead of getting caught up in analysis paralysis from not knowing which expert to follow, make a general rule for yourself:

Find ONE expert that you respect. One that you would like to emulate – whose career you admire and body or work you find compelling. And then default to their findings over others.

No one person has all the answers. If you’re trying to become a better writer, follow somebody whose writing you love. If you’re trying to learn about email marketing, emulate somebody who’s email marketing campaign you admire. But if you take this approach and accept that the person got where they are by using their tactics, it will clear up a lot of strife for you.

All of the tactics different people teach probably work. Anything can work for somebody. But if you cut out all of the other noise and focus on just following one or two expert opinions and teachings, it will clear up a lot of strife for you.

2. Get Some Distance

Once you’ve already caught a case of researchitis, it’s difficult to untangle yourself from all the information you’ve already taken in.

So sometimes, you just have to get some distance.

Instead of trying to figure out what to do with it all right this moment, take a step back. Walk away and work on something else, or get some distance from your project in another way.

When I’ve struggled with information overload, I’ve found that changing direction and letting my project lie for a little while – maybe 2-3 weeks – has given me some new perspective.

3. Do an Experiment

The cause of analysis paralysis is information overload. But AP’s cousin is fear. We are paralysed into inaction because we’re scared we will take the wrong path.

We don’t want to fail. We are afraid of wasting time, or of judgement from others, or letting ourselves down.

In an experiment, there is no failure. Just hypothesis to be tested. So start looking at your project as an experiment. You can’t fail if you’re testing hypotheses. You’re just proving one wrong or right.

So choose the most compelling believable option available and start testing. As you begin to test, you’ll find whether the option works for you. If it does, you can stick with it. If not, move on and try the next way.

4. Go on an Information Cleanse

When you’re dealing with researchitis, sometimes the best thing to do is just go on an information cleanse.

Think about the purpose of a food cleanse. You go on a cleanse to reset your body’s functions – it’s like spring cleaning for your body.

Information cleanses are the same.

The purpose of an information cleanse, according to Kyle from Startup Bros in Episode 6 of the Unsettle Podcast, is to reset your relationship with information and shift it from consumer based to creator.

Take a break from absorbing any new information – including any that seems irrelevant to what you’re working on. Put yourself in a position so that your only option is to create or action the knowledge you already have.

After all, you have more than enough knowledge. You just have to act on it.

5. Stop Compulsively Learning

Spinach is good for you.

In fact, it’s one of the best foods on the planet for your health. Yet if you eat too much spinach, you’re taking in too much oxalate, which can lead to kidney stones.

Do you think information is any different?

There’s such thing as too much of a good thing, and while you’d be right to argue you have to take in a TON of spinach to have those effects, you take in an absolutely insane amount of information each day. Even before you crack that business book, you’re probably on the verge of overload.

So stop taking in any piece of information and material you can get your hands on.

Learn only what you need to know at any period of time to get you to the next step.

Just Say No to Information Overload

Information overload is the enemy of productivity.

It feels productive because you’re “learning,” but in reality you’re wasting time.

It doesn’t matter how high quality the information is that you’re taking in if you don’t action it right away. But luckily, you have control over how much information you choose to consume.

Having all of the information in the world and not using it is like being a millionaire who never spends a dime.

So you get to choose. Will you be a smart information consumer, or will you be frivolous with your time and energy?

[Ed Note: Sarah Peterson is the author of Unsettle.org, where she encourages people to never settle for careers they don’t love. Sign up for her free course to find the perfect idea for a lifestyle business so you can gain flexibility and freedom and do work you love.]