a congestion of the brain

fighting information overload

Is there a limit to the amount of information we can mentally process in a day? Is there a limit to how efficient we can make menial tasks to save time? Might we someday become as efficient as it is possible to be, the J curve of human progress ending at a fixed point?

These are the kinds of questions that science writer James Gleick asks in the final chapter of his 1999 book, “Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything.” As the title suggests, Gleick’s book discusses how nearly everything—from our modes of correspondence and transportation, to the beat of modern music, to the number of shots a commercial can squeeze into a five-second slot—is accelerating at breakneck speed. Much of Gleick’s book is about speed on a societal level, but one particular chapter about personal “Internet Time” resonated with me.

“Speed is connectivity,” Gleick says. “The state of being connected makes [people and businesses] more efficient… Sadly, it also makes them feel busier—maybe even overloaded.”

We have all felt this way: simultaneously enamored with our connected lives and overwhelmed by the amount of information we are taking in every day. I have often found myself mentally exhausted at the end of the day, incapable of processing any more information, yet I continue to compulsively scroll through the internet. I vaguely want to stop and go to sleep, but I feel that I can’t.

There is a term for this feeling: information overload, or “infomania.” According to an article on NPR, there is in fact a limit to how much information we can take in on a single day. So why do so many of us strain our brains against this limit?

Consumer psychologist Dimitrios Tsivrikos explains in the article that so-called “digital junkies” are “starving for information” because they think that high levels of information will keep them better informed. In reality, a person who takes in too much information in a single day is not storing this information in any lasting, memorable way. It is the informational equivalent of swallowing your food without bothering to taste or chew it.

The article included a link to a website called Infomagical, of which the article’s authors were founding members. Infomagical, I learned, is a kind of five-day public experiment in reducing information overload. The program promised to help me “find focus and discover the magic of clear thinking.” Intrigued, I signed up right away.

For the next five days, I received daily text messages with advice about controlling my media consumption. When I set up my account there were five goals for the week to choose from; I chose “Being More Creative,” but other options included “Being More in Tune With Yourself” and “Being More in Touch With Family and Friends.”  Each day, Infomagical sent me challenges and reminders intended to increase my creativity.

The first day’s challenge was “single tasking.” Instead of checking my email while reading the news and texting a friend, I tried to do each of these tasks individually. The next day I was told to rearrange the apps on my phone to make them less distracting: I deleted all the apps that I didn’t use or that only served to distract me, and I reorganized the remaining apps into folders. The following day, I was told to ignore all internet trends and then to have a seven-minute conversation with someone about a piece of media I had recently consumed.

These daily challenges did not necessarily make me more creative, but they did help me to find focus. The main problem I have been having with the internet is that it distracts me from focusing on any one thing at a time. When I am thinking about my email, the morning news, a paper I have to write, and texting my friend back all at once, each task is fraught with an artificial sense of hurriedness, of not having enough time for anything. But when the tasks are broken down individually, I find that I actually have more time than I need to accomplish my goals.

My favorite challenge was the last one: Write down a long-term rule or mantra to combat information overload, and place reminders wherever you consume information.  After much thought, I chose a humorous but practical piece of advice from Ron Swanson of the show “Parks and Recreation”: “Don’t half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

What really won me over about Infomagical was that it is not “anti” information. The website acknowledges the importance of knowledge accumulation and curiosity. Rather than encourage me to stop my internet usage altogether, Infomagical helped me to sort out my priorities and ignore the excess information that was not important to my weekly goal of being more creative. The challenges showed me that my main sources of distraction and anxiety, my phone and computer, could also be used as tools to combat information overload.