Information overload, or filter failure?

There is no such thing as information overload.  If you’re overwhelmed by what you’ve got to read/consume, you have probably chosen to feel that pain.

The choice may not be intentional, but I doubt someone else is forcing you to consume too much information.  Even the compulsory reads on your reading lists shouldn’t be too much, even if it seems that way at the time.

[Note: Speed reading could help.  A quick search on Google brings loads of results.  At time of writing, the most recent speed reading piece I’ve seen is from Tim Ferriss.  To try getting a speed boost, give it a go.]

Imagine you see the Top 10 bestselling non-fiction books in a store.  Have you read all of them?  It’s unlikely.  Do you intend to?  I doubt it.

What you’ve done here is created a filter.  You have chosen to miss out on some reading material.  Even if you had the money, the chances of someone buying all the books and reading each of them are slim.  I’m sure you’d probably take something useful away from many books you’ve not read, but you can’t read every last thing that’s ever been written.  Even a fraction of one percent would be difficult to get through.  There’s just too much out there!

photo by B Tal

photo by B Tal

Your life is full of choices.  The data you wish to consume depends on how you choose to consume.  Some people, even uni students, claim never to read books unless they are practically forced to for an essay or exam.  Others can’t stop reading certain types of novels.  Others spend all day reading Facebook updates and blog posts.  It’s all a choice.

‘Information Overload’ occurs when you choose to consume too much.  It also happens when there’s such a backlog of reading that it’s too difficult to catch up with.  You then have to make another choice…do you give up something else in order to catch up, or do you discard some of the older material in order to lighten the load?

You’re likely to lose out if you take on too much.  When the ‘Information Overload’ feels like it’s about to strike, the simple choice is to get rid of a portion of what’s bringing you down.  Failing that, skim for the main points only and move on as quickly as possible.

It’s difficult to stop engaging with information that you’re used to reading.  It’s difficult to stop reading/watching the news if you’re used to that.  It’s difficult to stop consuming anything you have grown accustomed to.  That is why filtering is not easy, but always possible.  And not only is it a relief, it’s also surprising how little it matters once you’ve stopped.

One of my personal mottos is “Know when to stop”.  I find it important to read a lot.  It feels right in my personal circumstances and I use it to my advantage.  Once I start to find things tough, I step back and discard what I can do without. As I say, not always easy, but definitely possible.  The more I have practised this, the easier it has become to cut back and move on.

Sure, some of my choices may end up being mistakes.  Nobody’s perfect.  But it’s unusual to find a situation where you can’t rectify those mistakes and get back to the position you want to be.

Steve Pavlina has written about networking with busy people.  It’s worth reading what he has to say in relation to information overload, because he could have crashed and burned with the amount of communication he was getting.  As his site grew, so did the number of people contacting him.  Rather than continue responding to every single person, Steve decided to filter differently in order to cope.  He says, “I don’t have the capacity to accept deeper connections with everyone who wants to build a bridge with me, so I have to be selective”.

I’m sure he didn’t want to stop talking to each and every person, but there comes a time when it’s not possible to keep going.  When no choice is made to change the filter, that’s when the choice is made for you and ‘information overload’ occurs.

While some people insist on swimming further out to sea until they’re helplessly swept away, I’ll make do with paddling.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll take a short swim in slightly deeper waters, but I want to be sure I can get back to safety pretty quickly.

I don’t see that as weak.  I simply want to be able to make the choice myself.  It’s important to be in control of those filters and use them wisely.

How easy do you find filtering your information in-tray?  If you have any tips, I’d love to hear from you.


  1. This is a pretty interesting view. The problem isn’t that you NEED to read to much, but that you choose to read to much.
    ‘I find it important to read a lot’ that is also my opinion. But I need to cut time for other things then. So watching TV, no sorry, I want to read!
    Nice post!

  2. Great point and one that is not made often enough – for me it is a matter of choosing your information / communication channels and ruthlessly filtering them.

    Most of my info comes from Google Reader and increasingly via Twitter, I try to keep email for work and action that I need to take, rather than gathering information.

    You may also be interested in the concept of Information Obesity …

    … which perhaps better describes our modern day relationship with information.

  3. @Stefan, Thanks for your comment. It reminded me of another thing I’ve noticed before. Some people say they don’t have enough time to read, only to start doing something like aimlessly flick through TV channels or complain they’re bored! But, as you suggest, filter failure comes through choosing to do things…not refusing.

    @Paul, many thanks for your Information Obesity link. I will certainly check that out. I’m the same as you, with the majority of my (non-book) reading coming through Google Reader/RSS and Twitter. Other than a few magazine subscriptions, it’s all online now. And e-mail is becoming a thing of the past for me too. I may end up taking the Leo Babauta route and escape e-mail completely.

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