We're living in a world where we are always switched on. We're constantly on our phones, computers, tablets, and TV screens, consuming never ending content. There are almost limitless ways for content to flow right to our fingertips from numerous sources such as the news, advertisements, articles, TV shows, and more. With all this information we consume, it can be difficult to sift out what's important to us, and what is background noise. We can get distracted so easily by off-topic information and clickbait that you might find that when you're researching information related to say, Internet of Things, you end up scrolling through a post full of cat gifs. We've all been there.
Drowning in this information can kill productivity. One might think that having endless amounts of information is a good thing, and it can be, but sifting through all that content can be time-consuming and counterproductive. Do we even know which is the right channel to look for specific information? Do we actually know what to do with this information? What's relevant? What information is actionable to help the goal or task at hand? Finding information is one thing, and to put it all in context is another. Too much information can result in analysis paralysis, where you become paralyzed by all of the information, facts, and opinions being thrown at you.
And so something called the Relevance Paradox exists. The Relevance Paradox "occurs when an individual or a group of professionals are unaware of certain essential information which would guide them to make better decisions, and help them avoid inevitable and undesirable consequences. These professionals will seek only the information and advice they believe is the bare minimum amount required as opposed to what they actually need to fully meet their own or the organization's goals." This is why information overload has the opposite effect of making people more productive.
Filtering through content efficiently allows us to sort the wheat from the chaff. It's a way of controlling the flood. Think of it like turning on and off a tap; without filtering, the content would just flow constantly and eventually drown us. We're searching for what matters most and what is relevant to us personally or professionally.
We need to be mindful of the techniques we employ to filter information and content. We're currently placing a lot of faith in machine learning and algorithms to do the work and thinking for us. It's natural to assume that they're infallible, but the danger is that as software becomes more adaptive to user's needs and learning their behaviours, it filters the information according to historical data and use, and could potentially deem a vital piece of information as non-critical and fail to deliver it on time. It can also mimic user bias toward information and therefore artificially create and reinforce echo chambers.
That being said, here are some strategies people can employ to be more productive in their search through this content tsunami, without drowning in the information out there:
1. Tidal Waves of Notifications Distract Us - Information overload through social media, email, Slack, and other channels cause people to be unable to focus. The bane of productivity is the tidal wave of notifications that distract us. It's a great idea to learn to switch off email, social media, etc. and process them only a few times a day. This may not be ideal for professionals working in social media, marketing, or PR agencies who may actually rely on these notifications. If you are one of these people, skip to number two.
2. Don't Plan So Much - If you can get away with it, and you need to research for a client or project, don't plan too far in advance. Don't plan for the week, or even the day. Plan for the hour, and make those minutes of research count, and aim for a goal in mind. If the target is too far away, it invites more opportunity to get sidetracked.
3. Become Selective - By choosing specific blogs and feeds to follow, you can become more selective in the information you'll find. With the invention of RSS feeds, we are supposed to be saving time reading only the publications that interest us most. However, as I mentioned before, we have become a slave to the algorithm and its echo chamber, and have also subscribed to many blogs we don't even like anyway. Clean our your RSS feeds often.
4. Avoid Multi-Tasking - Multi-tasking isn't always effective. It can actually kill productivity or dampen creativity, but it depends on how you treat multi-tasking. You can truly only multi-task if you're pairing off activities that complement each other. One task will always be more important than the other, so devoting equal amounts of energy to both doesn't work well and kills productivity because of the imbalance. So no, the concept doesn't kill productivity or dampen creativity, but the way you execute it will.
5. A Healthy Balance - A healthy balance of advanced manual search techniques and automation works best. Automation helps filter in bulk, but ultimately our own criteria is where we find the real nuggets of information. It's always important to understand and learn how to construct advanced search queries rather than simple binary ones.
If you have the chance to incorporate a few of these simple tactics into your everyday life, chances are that you'll be able to tackle the information overload, constant notifications and pinging, and flood of content we face. Last but not least, never underestimate the power of a deep breath before diving head first into whatever task you have at hand.