Information Overflow

The problem: Information overflow.
Information overflow is an intensively discussed topic and many bloggers are giving great help in their posts how to reduce information overflow and deal with it. As I always try to find the root problem I was thinking about the reasons.

Then I stumbled upon an interview that David Allen gave on FastCompany.tv regarding GTD - see the video here. He mentions that it is not information overflow, it is "potential meaning overflow" what is the problem.

Well, I think he is right - but he made me thinking more about this. A few days ago I got an e-mail with the subject "Error starting program ..." and I knew that there was not only potential meaning in this. - There was potential work for me in this! - And either as there was no doubt that I have to figure out what the problem is in that case it was not only potential work - it was work, definitely.

So I was about to replace "potential meaning overflow" with "work overflow" when I noticed an IT news article. As IT changes so fast that it can happen that as soon as you start working on a piece of software there is already new technology and you should start all over using the newer technology. So the information can be relevant for your decisions. Regarding the e-mail mentioned above it was relevant to my other planning. As it is not only important to do things right but also to do the right things, sufficient information is required. So incoming information has "potential influence" - on your decisions, on your workload.

So I was about to replace "work overflow" with "potential influence overflow" when I remembered that the original problem I wanted to write about was "information overflow". I noticed that if I wouldn't have read my e-mail and if I wouldn't have read the news then I wouldn't have experienced any problem (therefore I kept the post title as it is ;-) ). And this is what most other people recommend when experiencing information overflow: Reduce your information intake.

But hell, I can't just overlook tons of informations that could change my life. What, if I am on the wrong way? - I think any of you already desired to be young again keeping the knowledge and experience you got when you are older. I think I would have made a lot of things completely different - maybe not from the long-term goals and alignment - but in the daily life I would deal with several problems completely different. So Information is important and actually there is an information underflow and not overflow (this is by the way also what David Allen says), because there is not only information but also information on the information - for instance the relevance of the information. And depending on the relevance it can have appropriate influence on our decisions and either life plans. What, if Randy Pausch did not know about his disease? Only because of the information about his cancer and about the approximately remaining time (which was initially estimated between 3 and 6 months of good health) he was able to adjust his alignment accordingly.

The reason: Potential relevance of information for survival strategies.
Our daily life is full of potential opportunities as well as potential risks. Our decisions "handle" them based on the information we have. Most of our decisions highly depend on the information they are based on. Our preferences, goals and priorities do also have influence but they are just applied to the information we have. And they are influenced by the information we have. Our complete view of the world is based on the information we have (we could rather still think that the world is flat without the according information). If I didn't know that there are computers I barely would have decided to become a software developer. ;-) - And if I would have known earlier that sitting all the time in front of the computer can have big impacts on health I would have started training earlier.

So it is the potential opportunities and potential risks that drives us taking action and the potential relevance of information makes us collecting information. There wouldn't be that large amount of information if it would not have any relevance. Every knowledge of any type can help being more creative in finding solutions on a completely other type of problems. This makes it either more interesting looking left and right also to completely different areas and domains of life and science.

We could have very different kind of goals and so information could have very different meaning and relevance, so what can be generally said? - Well, at the end there are two kind of goals I think:
  1. Goals that give our life more content, more sense.
  2. Goals that - achieved - promise a longer life.
But the rush for information, the importance that we give to information, let me think more of the general desire to survive or fear of "not making it" as the intention behind it rather than living a life of satisfaction and happiness.

There are a lot of people living on this planet and the population is still increasing. It is clear that not everyone can survive when the limits are reached. So I can understand people's fears. I cannot avoid thinking of the dinosaurs in comparison to humans. What, if in those times it was just increasing the probability to survive if the creature was a little bigger? - I imagine that a rush in size could cause exhausting of the world resources and hence to the extinction of the dinosaurs. - I don't have any scientific proof for this theory. The phrase "size matters" can have two meanings here... ;-) - However, I can see similar patterns in development of human beings, just the definition of "size" is different.

The solution: Look at the costs, quality of information and the relevance in the long run and use time management methods to manage information.
Intake of information is not only benefit, it does also cost something: It costs time and brain resources - and sometimes also money (buying books for instance). Here I remember again the many other bloggers that say: "Reduce your information intake". ;-) - And I think they are right. The problem is to decide what information is really important and learn to decide quickly. It is also a matter of focus to reduce the amount of information you really take into consideration and process. Focus on what really matters!

Before looking back to information itself, let's have a short look on the role of information regarding the desire of survival. There are also other factors relevant here:
  • Physical power (Health and strength)
  • Intelligence
  • Substantial resources
  • Financial resources
  • Tools (either material tools or mental tools and methods)
  • Flexibility
  • Allies (mentors, friends, partners, family and other helpers)
  • Entourage / Leaders (depending if want to lead self or prefer to "escort" others)
  • Speed
  • Derivation / Karma (if you believe in Karma)
  • Accident
  • Information, Knowledge and Experience (last but not least)
Information can be an important factor - but information is not the only factor to success! This important fact reduces the relevance of information in general. The right information can help improving the other factors, but the major part to improve the performance on the factors mentioned above is hard work!

Now, when we look back at the information in detail we can see that the relevance of information depends on it's quality - and here are a few factors:
  • Reliability (of the information source)
  • Accuracy (scientifically proofed or just opinions)
  • Timeliness (actual information, late information or future prediction)
  • Costs (time and money needed for you to get benefit from the information)
  • Relevancy (for your goals, priorities and preferences)
Evaluate the quality of information regarding the factors above and then decide what informations not to consider and which to process. Remember that there can be a whole bunch of information (e.g. a specific news channel) that - as a whole - can cause too much costs to keep reading (if only one out of 30 articles contains really new information for instance).

Depending on your current life stage and current requirements some information can be more relevant than other. Do not consider everything important at the same time - so do not set the focus on too many things within a single year/month/week/day. There might be times when you focus on education and times when you focus on your work or on your family. And there might be a week with focus of optimizing investment and another focusing on your hobby.

You can deal with information arrival as with emotions while in mediation. Just salute them and let them pass. See "There is suffering" for details. Welcome every information but this does not necessarily means that you need to deal with it.

When selecting relevant information think more on the long run than on actual hypes and things of temporary interest. If you change your focus with any new incoming information you will barely bring anything to an end. Prefer the better and lasting solutions against the quick fixes. But also remember that it is better to put a towel on a bleeding wound than searching too long for a better solution. A good solution that is established is better than a perfect one that never gets realized.

I find that several methods useful for time management can also be applied for selection of information intake:
And remember that not every new information is really new. Some of the repetitive information can be useful if it reminds you on important things you keep forgetting but a lot of information is just repackaged old stuff.

And before you begin to take action because of some new information take a moment to think if the new thing is really promising an improvement - because change is only movement - not necessarily in a better direction or to a better future.

Related posts: Hard exercise, There is suffering, Change hype, Setting borderlines, Crying for attention, Tell not more and not less, Razor sharp focus, Analysis and therapy, Knowledge is freedom, Direction over goals, Principles over rules,New year decisions, People and Information, Prejudice vs economization, Team meeting with yourself.

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