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Conquering Information Overload

CREDIT: Microsoft Office

Do you dread your e-mail inbox upon returning from vacation? Do piles of unread journals grow like an organism on your desk? Do you feel as though no matter how hard you try to keep up, the information that you need to be effective as a scientist is spinning out of control? If so, you’re not alone. Information overload is one of the common ills of our age, with new information being produced and disseminated at an ever-increasing pace.

At times, we might be surfing or skimming, letting information flood us, while at other times we need to tighten the funnel of incoming data, in order to read critically. -- Maggie Jackson

Research by Basex, a knowledge-economy advisory firm, indicates that knowledge workers in the United States lose as much as a quarter of each working day to information overload. The resulting reduction in productivity -- and also innovation -- represents an annual loss to the U.S. economy of more than $900 billion, they found.

The losses aren't just economic; they're emotional and psychological as well. That feeling of being overwhelmed can damage your happiness and health -- not just your work and career.

It's not all bad, however. Properly managed, the flow of information that threatens to overwhelm you can inspire new insights, plug you into new ideas and communities, and advance both your research and career. All you need to do is become the master of the information flow, rather than a slave to it. But how do you accomplish that?

Managing e-mail

Angela Carter (CREDIT: Angela Carter)

Many of us start the work day dealing with one of the main causes of information overload: e-mail. In a recent survey of 12 scientists and one member of the support staff in a large scientific research organization, “About half of the informants felt that they were not in control of their e-mail, and as a result, not in control of their work,” writes Gloria Mark, a human-computer interaction researcher at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of the study, in an e-mail.

Angela Carter, a lecturer from The Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, recommends turning the pinger off and setting aside specific times in the day to check messages. She never spends more than an hour per session, grouping her e-mails by sender and subject to see which groups need to be answered immediately and which can be dealt with in batch mode while doing associated work. Carter also suggests reducing our colleagues’ load by avoiding the reply-to-all button. “Target your information at the right person,” she advises.

Spotting the distraction

Maggie Jackson (CREDIT: Maggie Jackson/Karen Smul)

Even without a constant stream of e-mails, we're still inundated by information as we try to get our work done. Multitasking can be a strong temptation -- but experts advise against it when you're doing serious work. “If you really want to be efficient, try not to multitask too much. Study after study shows that multitasking leads to errors, fragments our attention, disrupts learning by impeding memory encoding, and tends to lure us away from our primary task. We may be able to juggle the most rudimentary tasks -- folding laundry and watching TV -- but if we are handling complex, higher-order thought or work, we simply cannot multitask well," says Maggie Jackson, who wrote Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Jackson is a journalist and a senior fellow with the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York City.

According to Jackson, we tend to work in a “highly reactive” way, constantly alert to new stimuli like e-mails, SMS texts, and tweets as we underutilize long-term strategies like planning and managing. “I think that’s one reason people feel they can’t keep their head above water: They are always reacting and don’t have enough time to plan and think,” she says. “It’s worth noting that the greatest scientists in history have always taken the time to step back and get perspective.” Jackson recommends "ruthlessly manag[ing] your environment to allow yourself time for deep focus."

Kellar Autumn (CREDIT: Lewis & Clark College/Robert Reynolds)
Kellar Autumn with a student.

Kellar Autumn, chair of the Department of Biology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, increases his productivity by shutting himself away when he needs to focus. “I've found that quality time is critical for some of my work, such as writing, data analysis, and mathematics,” he tells Science Careers in an e-mail. "I need at least 45 minutes of uninterrupted time to be efficient at these ‘intense focus’ activities. Even one phone call, one e-mail, one student knocking on my door can break my focus and set me back. So, I make sure to schedule significant time blocks for this type of work, and am ruthless about isolating myself during these periods."

Keeping a cap on information

All scientists need to keep abreast of new developments, but it is easy to dig a hole by gathering more information than we can deal with. This becomes especially important during a literature search. Don’t allow the search process to pull you along, Jackson advises. “Be constantly checking in with yourself and saying: Is this what I need? Is this a great source? Should I follow this tangent? Is it going to be important for what I’m trying to read up on?” The key is to keep your goal firmly in mind. And while this approach is great for literature searches, it holds true for any other kinds of information you may seek.

Still, it's possible to be too focused. It's important for scientists to stay creative and remain open to new ideas, and that's best served by opening the tap some. "There's a balance to be struck. At times, we might be surfing or skimming, letting information flood us, while at other times we need to tighten the funnel of incoming data, in order to read critically," Jackson says.

Using technology to your benefit

While some blame new technology for swamping us with information, Web-science researcher Leslie Carr of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom believes it can help us cope with information overload. “Well-designed technology helps us stay on top of our e-mail and reading,” he says. It accomplishes that, in part, by allowing us to make good use of time that would otherwise be lost. Carr, for example, uses his smartphone whenever he finds himself waiting in a queue, and reads tweets from fellow researchers during breakfast each morning. When there's little need for intense focus, multitasking makes sense.

Leslie Carr (CREDIT: University of Southampton)

Software can also help us stay in control. Autumn uses Thomson-Reuters Web of Knowledge “to send e-mail updates [to myself] on key topics (e.g "gecko adhesion"), and for citation alerts when someone cites a key publication,” he writes. He also subscribes to various weekly and monthly journal alerts by e-mail and uses “the EndNote (application on my computer) to manage many thousands of citations in my literature database.”

When it comes to online searching, “one piece of new technology I find very helpful is the EBSCOhost app on my iPhone and, of course, Google Scholar,” says Kairen Cullen, a chartered educational psychologist based in the United Kingdom. “Over time, one develops a filtering process so that reading time is maximized in terms of usefulness for professional practice, writing, and sheer interest. The latter is key or it all becomes rather tedious.”

Carr adds that social media applications like Twitter, Facebook, and Delicious can help doctoral students gain a new perspective on their work by discovering what research papers and conference proceedings established researchers choose to highlight. Seeing what others are picking out as relevant should help students hone their skills at recognizing what information is really important.

Kairen Cullen (CREDIT: Kairen Cullen)

Keeping a balance

While a range of tools and strategies can help us deal with specific causes of information overload, good time management is the key to really getting a grip on the problem. “A common fallacy is that we can simply allocate the time for each task,” writes Autumn, a father of two who has produced highly cited research and holds seven patents. “You have to prioritize.”

Should you not, information overload is likely to spill over into your private life. When that happens, you have to be careful to put people before information. “Direct interaction with others, and especially the people we care about, has to be the priority,” says Cullen.

When the way we are working starts interfering with normal functions such as sleeping, eating, relationships, social interactions, and physical health, “we know we’ve tipped the balance,” says Cullen, a past chair of the Division of Education and Child Psychology at The British Psychological Society. “Then it’s time to evaluate and adjust.” Being realistic about what you can achieve may help you avoid reaching this point. “Nobody, however expert in their field, has all the information that’s possible.”

Sharon Ann Holgate is a freelance science writer and broadcaster in the United Kingdom.

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