How to conquer information overload and get more done in less time

Woman studying looking frazzled with pile of books

We’ve all likely heard the phrase “information overload” but what does it mean, and how can you combat it?

Information overload refers to the excess of information available to a person trying to complete a task or make a decision. And in an increasingly digital world, where endless amounts of information are available at our fingertips, information overload can impede the decision-making process, resulting in a poor (or even no) decision being made.

Daniel Levitin, a McGill University psychology professor and author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload” told Forbes Magazine that more information was created in the last 10 years than in all of human history before that.

“I’ve read estimates there were 30 exabytes of information 10 years ago, and today, there’s 300 exabytes of information,” he said.

Here are some of the top tips for thinking straight, overcoming procrastination and getting more done in less time.

 

1. Do a “brain dump”

Productivity guru, and author of Getting Things Done, David Allen recommends something he calls “clearing the mind” by creating a big list of everything floating around in your head.

He also recommends immediately writing down any thought that interrupts your workflow.

“Writing [these thoughts] down gets then out of your head, clearing your brain that is interfering with being able to focus on what you want to focus on,” he says in his book. It gives your mind permission to “relax its neural circuits so that we can focus on something else.”

Once everything is written down, prioritize the items into lists: things to do today, things to delegate, things to do this week, and things to drop. All calls these categories: do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it.

If you find an item that you just can’t seem to cross off your list, it might need to be redefined.

For example, you write down “decide whether or not to get a new car this year.” But it might be better to break that decision down into smaller subtasks like, find out how much your car is worth or calculate how much it would cost to keep your current car on the road.

 

2. Group similar tasks

If you have several bills due, pay them all at once. If you’re cleaning the house, don’t get distracted by deciding to reorganize your closet.

Completing one task at a time is another way of being efficient with your mental resources. It forces you to pay attention to one item at a time.

“This allows us to get more done and finish up with more energy,” said Levitin.

 

3. Don’t multitask

While multitasking is a positive attribute in the workplace (and in life), it does have a downside.

Multitasking “costs” you by forcing you to make lots of little decisions – whether to answer or ignore a text, how you should respond, how you should file this email, whether you should stick with what you’re working on or focus on the interruption.

All the little decisions “spend” oxygenated glucose in the brain, the very fuel you need to focus on a task. Switching between tasks will leave you feeling exhausted, disoriented and anxious.

However, Levitin said, focusing on one task at a time “uses less energy than multitasking and reduces the brain’s need for glucose.”

 

4. Limit the distractions of email

Levitin maintains that just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental.

“Many people have their email programs set to put through arriving emails automatically, or to check every five minutes,” said Levitin. “Think about that: If you’re checking email every five minutes, you’re checking it 200 times during the workday.”

He recommends setting aside two or three times of the day for email and turning off notifications, so you’re not constantly being interrupted.

 

5. Take breaks

“People who take a 15-minute break every couple of hours are much more efficient in the long run,” said Levitin.

Taking a short break gives the brain a chance to hit the reset button in the part of the brain called the insula.

“So, taking a break, taking a nap, taking a walk around the block, listening to music – these activities, although most bosses would think that they’re a waste of time, in fact, they’re a big adjunct to productivity and creativity,” he said.  

Read more about overcoming information overload at forbes.com.

 

Published on Jan. 6, 2021.