It’s Not Information Overload That’s the Problem: It’s Attention Overload

We’ve all been there: trying to complete a task while being bombarded with pings and buzzes and emails and texts. The screen lights up. Distraction (maybe it’s important). The screen doesn’t light up. Distraction (has the battery run out?). Without even realising it, we try to squeeze more and more into our day, by multitasking, by responding immediately and by breaking our actions down into tiny blocks. And by the time evening rolls around, we’re too tired to even wonder why we’re exhausted.

Is it trying to do too much that exhausts us? Or is it the constant drip of claims on our attention? Could the two one and the same?

information overload

by Pavan Trikutam for Unsplash

There is no doubt that the huge advances in communication technology have helped our careers. We have more information at our fingertips than we could possibly consume. We have more access to connections than ever before. We have app-based help in managing our schedules and our lives. And we can keep in touch with colleagues as well as with friends and loved ones with just a few taps to the screen. We are more productive.

Yet the same advances in communication technology are throwing obstacles in our path, obstacles that weaken our productivity in ways that we are often not aware of. Our attention is stretched, our ability to think clearly is compromised, and the self-imposed need to respond to demands on our time creates stress levels that end up having serious health consequences.

Much is written and said about the “information overload”. Yet that focusses on the wrong target. In an information economy, complaining about information overload is pointless. We want there to be vast amounts of good information out there, not just for our own benefit and interests, but because it furthers culture and thinking, it underlines continuous education and it opens doors for economic development. When we complain about information overload, we’re not unhappy about the amount of information that we have access to. What we are really unhappy about is “attention overload”.

Before the era of email and smartphones, the claims on our attention didn’t have the same access to it as they do now. Colleagues, friends and family couldn’t reach you 24/7. You had access to less news and fewer articles, so you agonized less over what to read. There was much less social pressure to be aware of the latest trends, memes and hot topics. There wasn’t the (usually self-imposed) imperative to answer emails right away, and there weren’t quite so many cat videos to share. Today, there are too many things vying for our attention.

And we seem to like it that way. We are in thrall to the power of always-on connection, and with good reason. Information is addictive, candy to the brain, and we can’t always control where our desire for another hit will lead us. A click here, a click there, and we feel satiated with inspiration and knowledge, either deep or trivial, but we wonder where the time went.

We tend to deal with email and messages right away, because the rush we get when we solve problems and get things done encourages us to jump at the next chance of interaction. And all those demands on our time make us feel wanted and needed. Dealing with them makes us feel busy and productive. According to Pew Internet Research, 67% of us check our phones for messages or alerts even when there hasn’t been a ping or a buzz. If that isn’t a sign of a semi-addiction to being available, I don’t know what is.

But the cost is more expensive than we know. Gloria Mark of the University of California discovered that interruptions, even short ones, increase the total time required to complete a task by a staggering amount. After stopping work on a report to take a phone call or to send an email, it can take an average of 23 minutes to get back “on track”. Sophie Leroy of the University of Washington continues with this argument: jumping rapidly from one task to another also reduces efficiency because of “attention residue”. The mind continues to think about the old task even as it jumps to a new one. I find that even when I decide to delay answering an email because it will distract me too much from what I’m working on, it niggles away in the back of my mind.

So, the danger is not information overload. It’s the pull on our attention that the vast amounts of interesting stuff out there exerts. Throw into the mix the easy access of emails, texts and always-present phones, and you have a stew of distraction and stress.

Professor and writer Clay Shirky put it beautifully in a talk (well worth watching) a few years ago: “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” Information overload has always been present, he argues, ever since the invention of the printing press. What is new is the expectations we place on our filters.

Pre-internet, the main filters were access, affordability and physical space. You couldn’t find all the books you wanted, not all newspapers were available in every town, and (public libraries aside) you had to pay money for them. Now, those barriers are pretty much gone.

But we have access to new filters. Our email settings can be tweaked. Our newsletter pushes can be purged. Our phones can be set to Do Not Disturb, or even to Airplane Mode. But here’s the thing: filter technology has been getting rapidly better over the years. And yet we feel more overwhelmed than ever. Part of it may be self-fulfilling: we talk about it more, so we feel it more. And part of it may be because the growth and spread of great information is accelerating beyond what the filters can handle. But, I believe that a big part of the problem is that we’re not really applying the filters with rigour. I know I’m not. I assumed that signing up for curation newsletters that send me links to the articles I need to read in my areas of interest, would save me time and free me from the “oooh, that looks interesting” distractions. You know, a few clicks on appealing links and suddenly you find yourself reading a list of what successful people have for breakfast. And you don’t remember how you got there.

So I thought that curation newsletters would be a good idea. So much so that I now get 47 of them. Every day. I need a filter for my filters.

And, I almost always have my phone on silent, and face down. But there’s still the WhatsApp buzz. Which is probably not important, right? But what if it is? What if it’s my son texting from University saying that he urgently needs to talk? How bad would I feel if I missed that? I’ll never forget the day that, in distraction desperation and with a deadline looming, I left my phone off and in my bag, on the other side of the room. When I went to retrieve it, there were 7 missed calls from the school nurse. (Just a cut that needed stitches. But still, you can imagine how guilty I felt.)

So, it’s difficult. Very difficult. There are so many demands on our time and pulls on our attention. And even just figuring out what is important and what can be shelved requires time and attention that we probably don’t have to give. Just figuring out the filters that technology offers us isn’t always as easy as it seems. And, our interests and priorities tend to shift. So our filter use needs to shift also. And that takes even more effort.

Yet, it is important, for our productivity, and for our health. We need to pay attention to our attention.

In the end, the filters have to be ourselves. The silent function on phones and the curation services help, and I recommend their use. But in the end, relying on them is just “kicking the can down the road”. In the end, the solution lies with us. We have to decide what gets through, and when. We have to decide what can’t be interrupted, and why. We have to design our own filters, probably using a combination of technological and physical methods. And then we have to implement the measures that will enforce them. Because “going with the flow”, giving up your autonomy and sacrificing your attention without even realising why, all carry a significant cost in what we all have so little of: time. We owe it to ourselves to spend that as wisely as we can.

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