A pair of glasses surrounded by icons denoting information overload

Our brains are simply not equipped to handle all the information we’re trying to stuff into them. That’s the (paraphrased) sentiment of Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais, a 13th-century monk, who was struggling to manage “the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory.” It seems poor Beauvais was buried in a never-ending pile of text. What’s a monk to do?

Beauvais, for one, decided to get organized. He set about compiling the Speculum Maius, a 4.5 million-word, three-volume encyclopedia that was supposed to contain all the information known to humankind up until that point. 

Makes you wonder – if Beauvais were a knowledge worker in 2021, how do you think he’d set about tackling the modern-day version of information overload? In addition to the still-thriving printing press, globally there’s:

And there’s no end in sight. The IDC, a global research firm, expects we’ll create more data in the next three years than we have in the past 30. 

Ever heard of a yottabyte? You might soon

One gigabyte = 1,000 megabytes
One terabyte = 1,000 gigabytes
One petabyte = 1,000 terabytes
One exabyte = 1,000 petabytes
One zettabyte = 1,000 exabytes
One yottabyte = 1,000 zettabytes

The challenge for individuals and teams is to manage the information we need to work and live, without getting railroaded or sidetracked by sensory inputs that threaten to confuse, distract, and derail us. 

But how? The first step is to take a cue from our friend Beauvais: sit down and get organized. We’ll share some strategies on exactly how to do that in a minute. But first, let’s talk about why that’s important.

Why is information overload a problem?

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“Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity,” according to Bertram Gross, who coined the phrase in his book “The Managing of Organizations.” 

What happens when our brains reach their processing capacity? Much like a laptop with too many applications open, things run slower and errors occur. As Gross points out, “Decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.”

There’s data on exactly how much information is too much. According to George Armitage Miller, one of the founding fathers of cognitive psychology, we can hold only seven chunks of information (plus or minus two) in our short-term memory at any given time. This theory is the reason telephone numbers have seven digits.

Of course, if you’re a knowledge worker, your brain is often tasked with processing information far more complex than a seven-digit phone number during the typical workday. And that information often needs to be comprehended, shared with teammates, compared against other information, and synthesized to make decisions. 

The quality of the information can also have a big impact on your ability to make fast decisions and create workable solutions. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2016 found that processing imprecise, insufficient, or conflicting information can deplete cognitive resources significantly faster than working with reliable information. 

The right inputs at the right time

So what’s the answer to managing an avalanche of information? If you’re a monk living in the Middle Ages, you sit down and write an encyclopedia. Today, it’s about organizing and prioritizing your flow of information so you can access what you need, when you need it, without being bogged down by extraneous data. 

Here are some modern-day solutions.

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1. Sort your information into digital buckets – and make them shareable

David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done,” recommends “clearing the mind” by creating lists of everything you’re thinking about. This, then, frees your mind to focus on the task at hand.

You can apply this concept in a similar way on the team level. By increasing visibility into information sources, such as plans, documentation, and status reports, you can free up team members to focus on their individual contributions to team goals.

For example, a tool like Confluence allows you to create a single source of truth to cut down on uncertainty and misalignment within your organization. You can share everything from onboarding information to customer meeting notes to technical documentation. Using the built-in blogging capabilities, teams can report on recent successes and lessons learned – an especially useful way to break down silos and avoid redundant workflows. 

Tip

Here at Atlassian, we even use Confluence for personal blogging within the company. Especially after the shift to remote work, it’s a great way to stay connected with coworkers – people share their favorite recipes, tales of how they’re passing time during the pandemic, and even pictures of their kids.

This strategy not only makes it easy to find information, but also supports a self-service model that can help cut down on interruptions and unnecessary meetings. (Imagine a world where no one asks you how to find the latest customer list … this could be your future!) 

Learn more about Confluence’s features and functionality.

2. Empower yourself to manage interruptions

Stem the unending tide of information by blocking out focus time, where you silence all the pings and dings from Slack, texts, and news alerts. 

This is critical, because distractions are the donuts of brain food. More specifically, distractions deplete oxygenated glucose, which your brain needs to maintain focus – that’s according to Daniel Levitin, author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.” He notes that switching into focused-work mode uses less energy. 

Managing notifications may sound easy, but many of us still struggle to find the willpower to make it happen. Take some of the pressure off by using an app like Clockwise, which integrates with your calendar to find periods of time for deep work. You can also configure your settings so that Clockwise will automatically mute notifications during focus time. 

3. Put web surfing in its place

Web content is highly optimized to grab our attention and keep it. Popping onto the internet to check the news during lunch is easy. Popping back off can be harder. 

Using a tool like Pocket can help. The app allows you to bookmark articles to read later, making it easier to click away and stay focused on the tasks that you need to get back to. 

On your PC, install the Pocket extension on your browser. When you see something you want to save, just click the Pocket icon. This app also works on mobile, so you can sync across all your devices. 

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4. Refocus a portion of your non-work time

Levitin stresses the importance of letting your brain recover by daydreaming or engaging in restorative tasks. But prying our smartphones from our screen-addicted grip after work hours is easier said than done.

Here’s one way to tackle this: instead of making unplugging a strict mandate (“I’m going to stop looking at Twitter before bed!”), find something else to focus on – something delightful, that feels like a treat instead of a punishment. For example, rather than deciding you’re not going to look at your mobile device all weekend, make plans that make it hard to pay attention to your phone – take a long bike ride, cook something delicious, engage in a DIY home project, play a sport, or make a craft project with your child. 

These breaks give your brain a neural reset, meaning you’ll be sharper and more productive when you return to work. 

To learn more about how your team can tackle information overload by using Confluence, click here.

What a 13th-century monk can teach us about managing information overload