Avoiding Information Overload

Avoiding Information Overload
The phrase "Too much information!" has come to be associated with transgressions such as co-workers telling too many details about their personal lives, for example, or airplane seatmates divulging more than you ever needed to know about themselves. But "Too much information!" also describes the state many of us find ourselves in during the course of an average week: we're bombarded by info on the radio, on TV, in newspapers and magazines, and online.

Information overload not only contributes to disorganization (piles of articles we plan to read, dozens of e-mail messages we're sure we'll get around to sooner or later), it also leaves us feeling harried and spent. A little information may be a dangerous thing, but too much of it can be even worse. Here are three ways of avoiding the overload.

Let yourself not know it all
Being aware of what's happening in the world can be a virtue, and absorbing information on topics that interest you can make life more pleasant, but trying to know everything all the time--from the local traffic and weather to the latest world affairs to what the newest fashions are to how to bake the perfect cake--can set your head spinning, and can leave you precious little time to do much of anything else.

The first step in avoiding information overload is giving yourself permission to keep up with only the topics that are truly useful or interesting to you. Not having an encyclopedic knowledge of a wide range of topics doesn't make you a less interesting, intelligent, or important person, and it can free you to learn more about subjects that actually do grab your attention. Pick a few topics that really engross you or are important to you, keep up with them, and maintain only a passing acquaintance with everything else.

Go on a media diet
Ignorance isn't really bliss, and it can cause us to be less involved in the world and our communities. That said, there can be benefits to taking a break from consuming as much information as you normally do.

If, for example, you're in the habit of watching both the morning and the evening news, reading a daily paper, and listening to news radio, try cutting out a few pieces for a week or so: listen to music in the morning, take a walk with a friend in the time you'd normally spend reading the paper, and limit yourself to 30 minutes of TV news in the evening. Chances are you'll still know what's going on in the world, and you'll open yourself up to experiences you don't normally have. After the week is up, you may just find that you don't need as much info intake as you used to in order to feel well informed.

Pare down your reading material
One of the biggest causes of clutter I see in my work with clients is reading material: newspapers, magazines, articles printed from the Internet, clippings, newsletters, and catalogs. All of these items have the potential to offer useful information, of course, but when they reach a critical mass, they far too often become little more than stressful stacks of disorganization that remind my clients of all the reading they feel they should be doing but just don't have time for.

Here's the hard truth: the majority of us will never be able to read absolutely all of the information that comes into our lives. Unless we were speed readers or had nothing else to do with our days, there's no way we could get through every paper, magazine, book, article, and blog we came across that seemed slightly interesting. In order to avoid overwhelm, the frustration of knowing we're not keeping up with our reading, and stacks of paper surrounding us, we need to pare down.

Is there a magazine you never seem to get the chance to read, though it comes in every month (or, worse yet, every week)? Try canceling it. You can probably find much of the content online, or can flip through the magazine in your library. Do you get a daily newspaper that winds up in a menacing stack by the middle of the week? Consider subscribing to the Saturday and Sunday editions only; they often feature a roundup of news from the previous week, and chances are you'll be able to get through them before the weekend is through.

By focusing on the quality of what you read rather than the quantity, you'll avoid clutter, have more time to focus on what you're truly interested in, and avoid the guilt and stress that can come with the sense of falling behind on your reading.

Information keeps our lives interesting, helps us stay in touch with the world, and lets us be lifelong learners. Striking a balance between not knowing enough and feeling like you always need to be taking more in, though, is crucial not only to living a more organized life, but also to finding more time for the people, activities, and things that truly matter to you.

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