Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: How much is too much before we’ve reached information overload?

According the urban definition, information overload — or infoxication is the difficulty in making a decision or understanding a concept brought about by the presence of too much information. Originally a cognitive psychology term, IO has evolved into a reference to the serious consequences of our current information technology.


IO isn’t new. In his article, “Death By Information Overload,” Paul Hemp shares that IO dates back to the 1400s, to Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press. The invention of movable type led to a proliferation of printed matter that quickly exceeded what an average human mind could absorb.

Later technologies — from carbon paper to the photocopier — compounded the issue by making the replication of existing information easier. And once information was digitized, documents could be copied and shared in infinite quantities.

Digitizing content also removed barriers to publishing new information. The word processor eliminated the need for the secretary’s shorthand, typewriter and correction fluid to produce and share new information.

We’re drawn toward this information — information that didn’t exist or that we didn’t have access to — and we can’t ignore it. Online research reports and ratings. Blogs, Wikis and discussion forums. The corporate intranet. And the inane narcissism of many social posts.

This surging volume of available information — and its interruption of people’s work — adversely affects not only personal well-being, but also decision making, innovation, and productivity.

IO even in the supermarket

Even a simple trip to the grocery store is subconsciously mind-boggling. McGill psychology professor Daniel Levitin compares a trip to the store in 1976, when there might have been 9,000 products to choose from. Today, there are more than 40,000 — yet the average person still needs less than 150. So think of the 39,850 products we have to ignore just to get our 150.

To ignore them we must first acknowledge them. Your mind must process, “No. I’m not interested in Honey Nut Cheerios. I want the Multi Grain Cheerios.

Interput, Kids and Success in the Digital World

We have created more information in the last 10 years than in the history of humans, and we simply can’t handle it all.

With large and never-ending quantities of input, children no longer engage in “interput,” — the combination of all the processes that go into thinking, from input source to output. With so much information coming in and the need to get information out, kids have neither the time nor the energy to adequately process all of the information they receive.

Information is only a tool; it’s value lies in how we use it. What makes children successful in a wired world is not the availability of information, but how they use their interput.

Parents and educators both must realize that only through interput does information become meaningful to children. Only with this critical processing can it transform itself from simple data into knowledge, insight, expertise and wisdom. Without it, serious consequences evolve.

Decision Fatigue

According to Sharon Begley, in her article “The Science of Making Decisions,” every bit of incoming information presents a choice: whether to pay attention, whether to reply or whether to factor it into an impending decision. But decision science has shown that people faced with too many choices are apt to make no decision at all.

Susie East and Ben Tinker in their CNN article “How to think straight in the age of information overload,” say that our consumption of nearly 74 gigabytes of data/day not only causes IO but leads to something called decision fatigue. This is why Albert Einstein is typically seen wearing a gray suit, why Steve Jobs usually wore a black turtleneck and why Mark Zuckerberg usually wears his famous gray T-shirt. Valuable energy is used to make inconsequential decisions — such as what clothes to wear.

Data stress is different from prehistoric stress. Back then, a lion approaching your shelter would provoke a fight or flight response. Cortisol triggers the release of adrenalin which shuts down unnecessary systems (like digestion and libido) when you’re fighting or fleeing for your life.

Today’s data stress has no place to go. We can’t fight it or flee it. Instead, it builds up and paralyzes us. We don’t know how to handle this stress because our system wasn’t intended to operate this way. Data stress and decision fatigue keep us away from immersing ourselves in the things that are really most important to us.

Costs and Consequences of Information

▪ Data addiction. Not everyone is overwhelmed by the influx of information. Some people thrive on it — which brings about another digital related term: information addiction. According to an AOL survey of 4,000 e-mail users in the United States, 46% were “hooked” on e-mail. Nearly 60% checked e-mail in the bathroom, 15% checked it in church and 11% had hidden the fact that they were checking it from a spouse or other family member.

▪ Impact on Education and Learning. A key reason for information’s diminishing or even negative returns is the limited capacity of the brain’s working memory. It can hold roughly seven items — anything more must be processed into long-term memory. Beyond this point, judgment falters and focus is lost. To keep on track, we have to make a conscious effort to stem the information flood.

According to the Jim Taylor’s Huffington Post article “Are Your Children Overloaded with Information?,” neuroscientists refer “cognitive overload” to as the diminished ability to process information due to an overflow of information. He explains that information inflow is not thinking. In contrast, thinking involves what a child’s children’s brains do with the information — that is, how to perceive, remember, organize, synthesize, reason, create, problem solve, and make decisions. So we need to focus on educating kids on how to think, not just access information.

IO affects children differently than adults. Their immature brains have neither the time nor the attention to process most of the information coming at them from every direction —or use it productively. Thus, deep learning and/or deep exploration of a subject is often a challenge.

With a constant flood of information, kids are motivated to move the information through their mind to make room for the next wave rather than think about it. During the inundation, kids either ignore the information completely — which means they don’t retain it (delete emails before reading them or skip a chapter in a reading assignment) —or they rapidly process it to get it out and clear their minds for new information flowing in. The “output,” unfortunately, will be of poor quality because the information wasn’t adequately processed.

Scott Steinberg, in the article “Information Overload: the High-Tech Parent Trap,” says that education’s role in IO is especially concerning. He shares how web-based tools like Edmodo transform classrooms into online communities, and companies like Pearson and Engrade providing plug-and-play portals that offer a real-time window onto children’s academic world. Even parents are faced with access to lesson plans, grades, and progress reports.

▪ Impact on the Workplace. Whether a student or a worker, IO comes at a cost. Time is wasted when we are forced to sort through useless emails and it takes time (up to 24 minutes) to recover from an information interruption. Organizational losses from wasted time can add up to the tune of millions of dollars. Nathan Zeldes, a former Intel senior engineer revealed that many employees considered one-third of the messages they received to be unnecessary.

Emotional distraction of delayed responses is yet another fallout from IO. Our expectations for immediate reply can create angst. Is the message being ignored on purpose? Did it go to the recipient’s spam? Is the recipient too busy to respond, or has it gone unnoticed due to a full inbox? In some cases, online silence can be more detrimental than a delayed response.

Cutting back

To prevent IO in children, Taylor says that parents must become the “spigot” that controls the flow and type of information they receive.

▪ Engage your children in a conversation about data. Many kids are acutely aware of the amount of information flooding their brains and are overwhelmed by it.

▪ Find ways in which you can help children to reduce/manage their input without causing them to miss out on important information — whether it is of academic, social or personal interest.

▪ Ask your children to consider the purpose of all the information they receive and it brings value to their life.

▪ Work with your children to set reasonable limits on the inflow of information. This will help reduce input stress, enable them to engage in interput and allow them to do better in school and other important activities.

To prevent IO in ourselves, Levitin suggests that we:

▪ Do a brain dump. David Allen, a guru of productivity, recommends a “clearing the mind.” Create a list of everything floating around your head. By writing them down, you clear your brain of distractions and cool down the neural circuits, which enables you to focus on what you need to. Once written, the list can be categorized and prioritized as do, delegate, defer or drop.

▪ Invoke the two-minute rule. Allow 45-60 minutes a day to sort through tasks that require only two minutes or less — like emails, phone calls, tidying up and checking your financial accounts.

▪ Do it first thing in the morning. Important decisions should be made at the beginning of the day, when courage and energy levels are highest. Whatever is the most unpleasant thing to do, do it first in the morning.

▪ Take breaks. People who take a 15-minute device free-break every couple of hours are much more efficient in the long run. It gives their brain a chance to hit the reset button. Rejuvenating activities like taking a walk or listening to music are adjuncts to productivity and creativity.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.