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How to Cope with ‘Information Overload’: Tips for Students and Researchers

The human brain has enormous memory capabilities, but as information flow continues to increase in today’s world, our power to process this “information overload” can’t keep up.

While some research suggests that the human brain could, in theory, store as much data as the entire Internet, other researchers point out that frequent use of digital technology can affect brain health and behaviour.

For students starting a research project, too much information is not a good thing. It’s time-consuming to cut through all the clutter, and there’s a risk of cramming too much irrelevant information into your final product, making it confusing for readers.

What Is Information Overload?

Bertram Gross, a professor of political science at Hunter College, in New York, coined the phrase “information overload” in his 1964 work “The Managing of Organizations: The Administrative Struggle”. The futurist Alvin Toffler popularised the phrase in his 1970 bestseller “Future Shock”.

For Gross, a key concern was how information overload affects decision-making. He wrote: “Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision-makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.”

While this definition preceded the Internet era, the matter is getting more difficult today, considering the instantaneous flow of information. Besides through direct interaction with people, information spills into our lives daily through social media, e-mail, web pages, and mobile applications.

Causes of Information Overload

The Interaction Design Foundation, in a 2020 article titled “Information Overload, Why it Matters and How to Combat It”, says there are numerous reasons for information overload. It identifies some of the main contributing factors as:

  • The huge volume of new information constantly being created. For example, about 720,000 hours of video is posted on YouTube per day, more than you could watch in 82 sleepless years.
  • Pressure to create and compete in information provision, leading to a quantity-over-quality effect in many industries.
  • The simplicity of creating, duplicating and sharing information online.
  • The exponential increase in channels through which we receive information.
  • The lack of simple methodologies for quickly processing, comparing, and evaluating information sources.
  • The lack of clear structure in groups of information and poor clues as to the relationships between those groups.

Overcoming Information Overload

The Interaction Design Foundation’s advice is aimed at design students, but it could apply equally well to any college student starting a data-heavy project.

With so much information available, students may be tempted to pack so much data into their design or project that users will feel overwhelmed by it and, as Gross observed, their ability to make decisions based on it will deteriorate.

The foundation offers a number of tips to avoid the too-much-information trap. Following is a summary of some of its main suggestions:

  • Select trustworthy information sources and adhere to a critical methodology for evaluating data from them. Don’t waste time on unreliable websites.
  • Make use of abstracts and summaries. These highlight the most important content of a professional or academic text in a concise, condensed way. Studying how experts summarise their research will help you develop your own summarising skills, so you can limit the information you are exposed to repeatedly.
  • Limit your non-target social media use, to avoid getting distracted from the tasks you need to complete.
  • Prioritise your activities, and don’t overload your schedule with too many tasks that require maximum concentration.
  • If you’re gathering data through personal interviews, be picky about the people you talk to. Some may want to talk a lot and give you more detail than you need, while others will veer off-topic, maybe even start relaying their problems to you. Empathising with people and listening to their problems are good things, but your time and energy are limited, so use them wisely.
  • Reactivate your brain power and refresh your mind by doing four simple things every day: exercise, sleep well, drink water, and engage in outdoor activities. It’s also a good idea to spend some time alone doing nothing, and staying away from the Internet, noise, and people.

Apps for Getting Organised

In conclusion, the foundation recommends using an app to organise your materials and stay focused. There are numerous apps you could choose from. To get you started, the foundation suggests three.

The first is Trello, which can help you manage research projects by saving links and information, categorising information, and helping you share it with colleagues.

Another suggestion is the Evernote app, which can also save everything in an organised way for ease of reference, help you prioritise tasks, and remind you to complete them.

The third suggestion is Forest, which bills itself as “an app that helps you stay focused on the important things in life.” Forest keeps you motivated by representing each task as a tree. As you work on a task, the tree grows. But if you leave the task unfinished, the tree dies.

If planting virtual trees sounds too gimmicky for you, consider that Forest partners with an organisation that plants real trees, Trees for the Future. App users can earn credits by not using their mobile phones, and spend them to plant real trees around the world. So by using the app, you’re doing a bit to make the planet greener too.


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