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Impact of "Too Much Information"
Handling Information Overload

George Siemens

October 26, 2002

Too Much Information!

Monday morning...open Outlook - 120 new messages (on top of the messages I reviewed through out the weekend)...skim Internet sites - elearning, knowledge management, information technology. Some items are saved in an increasingly complex "favorites" file structure, a few are printed, some are forwarded, and some are blogged. Try to stay on top of email as it comes in...another 150 will hit the inbox by the end of the day...complete job tasks - i.e. the reason I'm actually at the college. Skip lunch (or eat lunch while battling with email/phone calls)...and spend a few hours in the evening reviewing sites that changed through out the day...and responding to email (so the inbox is moderately clean Tuesday morning).

Sound familiar...sorta? Griping about information overload seems to be a new pastime for many people...and for good reason. It's increasingly difficult to stay on top of the mountain of information needed to perform work tasks. The information worker's dilemma: "What do I have to know, and how do I know I have to know it?" This question is asked with each email, website, article, conversation, phone call.

The information worker's dilemma: "What do I have to know, and how do I know I have to know it?"


Techniques for managing information are the new critical "meta-skills" needed to stay current (and hopefully sane). Gurus urging "simplicity" and "turn off technology" (while very sage advice) miss an important point: nothing is slowing down. What we need is simplicity in how we manage information, not simplicity by ignoring or turning off information.

Often, when new circumstances arise in society or work environments, the first response is to apply time-tested proven solutions. Yet, when a fundamental change occurs (for example, the nature and amount of information), new solutions and approaches must be considered. More of what worked in the past will only result in stress and frustration.

The following suggestions offer an approach to handling information...to stay current and keep processes simple:

  1. Lose aesthetics. Spelling and grammar, while important for formal documents and email, are not critical in handling most emails and communications. Take a page out of the teenager's instant messaging handbook: focus on communicating ideas/concepts, not syntax.
  2. Multiple formats. Information doesn't need to be structured in paragraphs and sentences. Pictures, diagrams, audio - can all be used to express concepts. Sometimes a diagram can communicate more than several pages of text. Consider tools like MindManager or get into audio blogging
  3. Aggregate. Simple technologies, like RSS, are helpful in managing information. It is impossible to explore all information options through simply visiting a few favorite sites. Using tools like Aggie or Amphetadesk allows a user to view large amounts of news/information in a very short period of time.
  4. Read other aggregators. I have about 50 sites in my aggregator...and I read other aggregators relating to elearning - OLDaily, Online Learning Update, elearningpost, Internettime. Through my own aggregation, and by relying on other aggregators, I read the best elearning materials from hundreds of web sites.
  5. Brevity. Short, concise, summarized materials and resources are most desirable (doesn't mean I'll actually write that way...I'll keep right on babbling!).
  6. Read differently. When the amount of information is high, detailed extensive reading is difficult. Skimming (and then determining if deeper reading is required) is most effective. Reminds me of good advice from Calvin and Hobbes: "Reading's much faster when you don't sweat comprehension".
  7. Suspend judgment. A positive impact of excessive information is the exposure to a wide variety of opinions and view points. Suspending judgment assures pre-conceived notions don't discount good ideas.
  8. Rapid decisions. This concept appears to go against the previous one - suspend judgment...but in reality, rapid decision making refers not to evaluating the content...but in evaluating the relevance of information. Dealing with many emails, for example, requires quick decisions on keeping, responding, or deleting.
  9. Communicators need variety. End-users handle information differently when overwhelmed. As a result, communicators need to ensure that the method of sharing is varied and relevant to how the information is used/processed. A website, a blog, newsletter, is a good mix of push/pull approach to information sharing. See elearnspace and Stephen's Web
  10. Timelines are shattered. In most cases, I respond to email in "real time"...that is I reply to it within minutes of hitting my inbox. It's interesting - five years ago a phone call returned within a day or two was fine...today, I generally expect responses to emails by day's end (if not sooner).
  11. Selectivity. Gone are days of solitaire! The extensive amount of information has made me fickle. I used to visit sites that were of interest, rather than relevant. I still have a few of those sites, but most of my information gathering is reserved for sites that consistently reward my exploration with valuable resources.
  12. Need for better classification. This is still in the embryonic stages. More intelligent, context-focused information is important. Google has made it much easier to search and acquire relevant resources...but it is really on the beginning point of more intelligent information acquisition - it is not the pinnacle.

We are well into the "information revolution", but our coping methods are still in the beginning stages. The objective is not to turn back the clock and wish we didn't live in information abundance (though, if history is any indicator (i.e. industrial revolution), significant change is never smoothly absorbed by society). Valuable skills in our society today center around the ability to acquire, evaluate, and use information from a variety of sources...quickly.


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