2.2 Dealing with information overload
Being able to handle information efficiently is a skill which will stand you in good stead, both when studying and at work. Information overload is a very real problem, which – as discussed in Week 4 – can affect morale and well-being if not acknowledged and tackled.
So far, you have looked at the search process and found out how you can refine your search using some of the options in Google. Making full and efficient use of search engine functionality can be a useful tool to help you deal with information overload, but human input is required too. In your initial search, you selected a couple of results. This involved filtering.
Filtering is a mental process involving skim-reading, evaluation and a series of quick judgements about what to do next. When faced with a screen full of search results, you can get a feel for which ones might be relevant by looking at the headings, highlighted keywords, type of site, URL and date.
Scanning involves looking quickly down the page to locate relevant words, phrases or images that you are interested in. This will help you to decide whether you should read further and how useful the website or document might be. You can scan:
- headings and subheadings
- images and artwork
- the body text itself, e.g. for authors’ names
- the sitemap.
Skimming the text quickly involves:
- getting an indication of the scope and content of the information
- looking at the first sentence of each paragraph to see what it’s about
- noting the key points in any summaries.
Of course, information overload is not just about information you find on the web when you are looking for it – it can also come from our inboxes. It is easy to sign up for information from various sites, such as retailers or restaurants, and then find your inbox overflowing with frequent messages that aren’t necessarily useful.
Activity 5 Tackling information overload
It’s time to hear from Manuela, Michael and John about some of their experiences of information overload and how they dealt with it. As you listen to the audios, think about your own situation and make a note of any tips you want to remember. Add these to your Digital plan.
Transcript: Manuela talks about information overload
I’ve needed to help the children with their homework a lot over the years, which has always been a challenge. They are really confident using technology, but they don’t know how to tell what websites are suitable to use for projects or essays. Sometimes they find stuff and the information is just too high level, like for university students.
For myself, I used to find that when I searched Google the amount of results you get is far too many. I couldn’t find the good information in all that. But last week, I was helping Sam do some research on his history topic. It was all about Britain in the 1980s and I found I could advise him how to make his search more exact. That helped in itself. Then when we were looking through the results, I could easily see two or three good sites by scanning the headings and the authors’ names. I also skimmed quickly through the text and the first page to make sure it was the right kind of thing. It was much quicker and I didn’t feel frustrated like I used to.
Transcript: Michael talks about information overload
My issue was I had so much paperwork to deal with in the office and at home. And then, on top of that, I started finding more and more people were emailing me, which meant my emails were building up too. So after a while, it started to feel unmanageable. I mean, usually I’m quite organised but the electronic stuff was just one step too far. I needed a system for getting to grips with it.
So using the 5 Ds helped me be more decisive. The sheer amount of stuff was getting the better of me. So, I went through my inbox and deleted stuff I knew wasn’t a top priority for me or that I could find out from someone else. And then, there’s a few things that had got buried in there that I realised I had to deal with on the spot, so I did that. And then, some other messages that could wait a day or two, so I flagged them for follow up. Some of it was more relevant to other people than me, so I forwarded those messages. And then, there’s a few messages I just filed for future reference. I felt really good when I’d done that. Now I feel much more in control.
Transcript: John talks about information overload
To be honest, I used to get all sorts of stuff come to me through my Facebook feed, and I never questioned it. Because there’s so much coming in all the time, you don’t have time to look at it properly. I’d just see what stories looked fun or entertaining and then share them.
There was one time when I saw a post and it was saying, if you were driving at night and you get eggs thrown at your windscreen, don’t stop the car because you will become a victim of roadside gangs. Well, there’s been a bit of car crime in my area, so I thought it must be true and I shared it. But it turned out it was a hoax. So, what I’ve done now is just stop following people and sites that have lots of this kind of stuff. You know? A bit dramatic. Which also means I’ve got less news coming in, and I can see what’s quality or not.
The 5 Ds (Caunt, 1999), that Michael referred to, are a useful technique to help you be more decisive when handling information that comes to you. They can be summarised as:
- Deal with (Do It Now)
- Determine future action (SIFT it – Schedule It now For Tomorrow)
- Direct / Distribute it (think about why you are directing it and what you expect the recipient to do with it)
- Deposit it (file it).
All of the techniques considered so far are part of the broader ability to take a critical stance towards what you read. This is about knowing what questions to ask, so that you can determine not only what information is relevant to you but also who put it there, what their viewpoint might be and how far it can be trusted.
Critical thinking is a skill of great value for academic study and beyond. It will also help you to stay in control of your digital life, rather than feeling it is controlling you. In fact, it is probably the number one skill you can develop.