5 information overload symptoms to watch out for
Every day, knowledge workers all over the world overwhelm their minds by consuming too much information—whether that’s reading endless emails or writing up daily reports. The information slowly wears them down and begins to manifest as information overload.
Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious when you’re experiencing information overload. Symptoms vary from person to person, with some people feeling a general malaise, confusion, sleeplessness, or even difficulty making decisions.
In this post, we’ll break down the main signs of information overload. This way, you can be on the lookout for any symptoms and can kick information overload to the curb when it creeps in.
1. Inability to make decisions
Every day you’re faced with a number of decisions—everything from what you’ll have for breakfast to what you're going to wear today. You’re constantly considering your options, weighing the benefits, learning more if needed, and then making informed choices.
This decision-making becomes more difficult when you experience information overload. Your mental energy is low, so you may put off making choices—or worse, make a poor decision.
This inability to make decisions doesn’t just affect your personal life—it’s also a major problem at work. If your company’s culture is pushing people into information overload, you and your co-workers may be unable to make timely, informed decisions, impacting the business’s bottom line. For instance, if your team is working on a marketing campaign that needs input from multiple stakeholders, delays at each stage push that campaign release date back. As it takes longer for that campaign to come out, your company loses out on potential customer interest in your product.
To see if your decision-making has been compromised by information overload, consider tracking your progress at work. If you notice that you’re frequently missing deadlines due to delayed decision-making, you might need to moderate your data habits to regain your ability to make informed decisions.
2. Lack of focus or concentration
A lot has been made in the media about peoples’ shrinking attention spans. There are many reasons why people find it harder and harder to focus on a single task for long periods of time, but one principal reason is that there is so much tempting information to consume 24/7.
Bored with work? Check Facebook. TV show a little slow? Why not look at sports scores on your phone?
Consume too much of this content, and you’ll likely experience mental clutter—the stray thoughts and distractions that cloud your mind and sap your mental energy. This clutter makes it difficult, if not impossible, to focus on the information that actually matters.
Without focus, it’s hard to get much of anything done. And unfortunately, this problem often only gets worse with time. The more you indulge in distracting information, the more you’ll be tempted to “take a break” by engaging with mental clutter.
If you find it difficult to work on a single uninterrupted task for at least half an hour, information overload may already affect you. In this case, it’s probably time to take a hard look at the data you filter through your brain each and every day to see what could be removed for a healthier data diet.
3. Difficulty sleeping
There are a ton of reasons for lack of sleep, but one of the biggest ones is stress. And information overload is a form of stress stemming from the amount of data your brain consumes and the effects of not being able to do so properly.
- Memory problems
- Lack of alertness or mental sharpness
- Chronic physical health issues like strokes, heart failure, and diabetes.
Around a third of Americans don’t get enough sleep every night. Information overload is one reason why this number is so high. Instead of settling into bed, people spend time scrolling social media until 3 am or worrying about projects at work.
If you’re not sure whether you get more than seven hours a night, start keeping a sleep diary or use a tracking app to see what quality of sleep you’re getting. For people not getting seven hours, consider limiting smartphone use in the evenings to give your brain the break it needs to settle in for a good sleep.
4. A lack of creativity
Humans are inherently a creative species with a penchant for finding unique solutions to new problems. However, if you’re experiencing information overload, you may find it more difficult to tap into this creative streak.
These brilliant eureka moments happen because your brain is working in high gear—churning through high-quality data, making connections, and coming up with solutions. However, your brain can’t do this all the time. It needs breaks to recuperate and process what it’s learned.
Even when people aren’t working on tough problems, they find it hard to give their brains a break. Instead of decompressing, they spend time scrolling social media, reading news notifications, or indulging in other bad data habits. All these things lead to mental burnout, causing a decline in peak mental performance and general well-being.
If you’re struggling to solve problems and find creative solutions at work, the amount of information you’re consuming could be the thing holding you back. Instead of worrying about your apparent lack of creativity, try taking your foot off the gas for a bit. It may be that your brain just needs some rest before it can get back to creative thinking.
5. Poor memory
Everyone has those days when it feels like you can’t remember anything. You spend half your day looking through files to find something you can’t quite remember. It seems like data goes in one ear and immediately out the other.
An impaired working memory is sometimes caused by information overload. When you’re working on a report, it’s your working memory that’s going to synthesize the information later. However, when your brain is constantly bombarded by data, emails, and distractions, your working memory struggles to keep up. Instead of remembering a specific quote and where you found it, your brain will remember that random Black Friday Sale email you just received.
So instead of using your time to get your work done, you’ll spend it trying to find what you’ve lost or forgotten. This kind of confusion isn’t good for anyone and can lead to poorer performance at work and a whole host of issues in your personal life.
Of course, occasional bouts of this kind of confusion are normal—everyone has their off days. But if you’re always feeling like this, it may be a sign that information overload is affecting your working memory.
The modern data diet isn't something the human brain has adapted to deal with yet. The constant barrage of stimuli and information affects us all to some degree, so it's important to recognize when it’s truly affecting your work and private life.
Learn how to handle your information overload symptoms
If you’ve experienced the symptoms in this list, check out our guide to information overload. You’ll learn more about the root causes and how you can take back control of your information diet.