3 ways to survive information overload

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March 24, 2015
3 ways to survive information overload.
Whether we’re self-taught or university educated, we’re all expected to keep learning as the industry evolves and advances. New development specs, constantly changing design trends, and new consumer needs require us to absorb new information at a rate previously thought impossible just a few decades ago. But despite that, even after years of product iteration with RSS readers and news aggregators, we’re still having trouble determining what’s important and what’s just background noise. In a fast paced industry like ours, time is of the essence and figuring out what we should focus on learning is definitely a priority. But how do we go about doing that efficiently? Information overload is not a new term, nor is it one most of us aren’t already familiar with in our day to day lives. A quick search will give you hundreds of methods and ideas on how to deal with it, some being better than others. The unfortunate truth is that information overload simply cannot be overcome… Instead, we should use it to our advantage to help us learn more efficiently instead. In order for us to learn how to manage our own internal filter, we first have to understand what information overload is and how it operates.

What is information overload?

Information overload is a psychological phenomenon where the amount of knowledge we’re trying to understand is simply too much to efficiently deal with. This could happen well before even attempting to learn about something, too! Feeling overwhelmed, afraid, annoyed, and insignificant are very common emotions caused by information overload. For some, this manifests in a lack of feeling accomplished; spending weeks or months learning about a new technology only to finish and have something else shoved in our faces can easily take away any sense of accomplishment we had just gained. [pullquote]it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed or that our knowledge is insignificant[/pullquote] Indirectly, information overload can easily lead a person to develop Impostor Syndrome as well. In that situation, no matter how much they learn, there always seems to be more out there. In part, this is due to our industry being absolutely massive. There are so many technologies, skills, languages, and tools out there that it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed or that our knowledge is insignificant in comparison with everyone else’s. Burnout is another common result of information overload. Constantly pushing our brains to learn, work, and keep up with the trends will eventually cause it to figuratively unplug itself and refuse to function. These are the times where no matter how much we read, or how much we work… Things just don’t turn out quite right or we end up discouraged from even trying at all.

Information hoarders, this is your intervention

In dealing with information overload, many of us keep “to-read” lists. Services like Instapaper and Pocket have taken off over the last decade; Safari even implemented a reading list built into the browser with version 5.1. These services are fantastic for short term bookmarking or organizing our information with tags and other meta data. But they can also greatly hinder our attempts to educate ourselves. If you’re anything like me, my reading lists end up so large they easily become unmanageable. There’s a very simple way to understand if reading lists are for you or not, simply answer two quick questions: have you bookmarked anything lately with the intention of reading it later? That’s great, now when was the last time you visited your to-read list to actually read something off it? [pullquote]when was the last time you visited your to-read list to actually read something off it?[/pullquote] You can probably see where this is going. If you’re like me, and you end up hoarding bookmarks and never reading them… This is your intervention. I’ve switched to reading things on the spot, and clearing off any “read later” bookmarks on my browser that are older than a few months. However, if you can safely bookmark things and revisit them in a timely manner, you’re already doing great!

How to survive information overload

With our possible hoarding problem out of the way, let’s talk about efficiently dealing with information overload. To start off, let me say that there simply aren’t any correct or incorrect ways to deal with it. If a solution you’re using has made your life better, keep doing it. If not… look for something else. In the end, what works for some people may not for others. The goal here is to learn efficiently, not necessarily learn more. The key is making sure that how we invest our time when learning is giving us good results without any negative impact. Another helpful bit of advice is to sleep on it. Quite a few studies have linked sleeping on new information to better retention and understanding of the subjects involved. Both New York University and Notre Dame University have fantastic studies on this subject. The key is to pace yourself, sleep on it, then briefly cover the information again to pick up any missing pieces. This tells you one of the most efficient ways to learn, but how do we decide what to learn?

1) Focus on your existing skill set

Learning something new feels amazing, especially when it’s something we’ve always striven to take on. With that said, we should all take time to learn about our current skills. Even if you consider yourself a master of a skill, there’s always something more to learn. The day we stop learning, is the day we begin to stagnate. The first priority in dealing with information overload is to focus on what we already know, and to see if we can further that knowledge. Filtering out all the noise becomes very easy when we have a place to start. Figuring out your niche can be a world of help when looking for your next educational adventure. Limiting the number of skills you attempt to be proficient at can greatly help too. Once we’re satisfied with our current skills, then we can start looking at learning something new entirely. Even then, though, it’s important to keep knowledge relatable. Take a look at where you want to take your career, particularly at the skills people have where you want to end up. Trying to learn a little of everything can easily become a fruitless adventure, but setting a goal gives us a filter to focus on things.

2) Moderation is essential

Now that we have our starting niche, and our long-term goal, let’s focus on moderation. We live in an amazing time, there’s no doubt. Any question you have or any desire for knowledge can be satisfied with a quick search. It’s important to moderate ourselves though, especially when attempting to take on new knowledge. You wouldn’t give a beginner the advice to learn HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and PHP all at the same time; so we shouldn’t attempt to take on more than we can chew, either. Becoming a jack of all trades isn’t worth the time investment if we can’t master any of them. [pullquote]a large salary increase and…interesting job opportunities…only come when we’re proficient at what we do[/pullquote] This also applies heavily to development the most, expansive skill sets are absolutely amazing and they look fantastic on paper… But trying to learn too much at once won’t work. Being full-stack can mean a large salary increase and a plethora of interesting job opportunities… those things only come when we’re proficient at what we do though, which is hard to achieve if we’re trying to learn half the job’s skill set at the same time.

3) Stick to quality, not quantity

Deciding where to invest our time in learning is very important, as it determines how efficiently we can educate ourselves. Finding high quality resources like Treehouse or Code School that are optimized to make you smarter can be a huge help. The best educational resources (on any topic) are the ones that have you read about the subject, get hands on experience with it, and test your knowledge afterward. While we’re on the subject of efficiency, I also want to mention that we all have our limits. As admirable as it is when we try to bootstrap our education and learn a new skill in just a week, chances are that this sort of approach glosses over many fine details and it can easily lead to burnout. Take your time when learning, especially about something new; but most importantly, have fun.

Long term survival

Constantly learning and expanding our skills is critical to our careers, particularly as web professionals. But doing so shouldn’t be at the sacrifice of our motivation, and it shouldn’t be an unpleasant experience. In any case, if you’re finding yourself dealing with burnout, information overload, or any other psychological warfare… just take a break. Go for a walk, pursue other interests that are enjoyable, and most importantly don’t push yourself too hard. Learning and expanding our skills should never come at the cost of our health. Featured image, burnout image via Shutterstock.

Dustin Cartwright

Dustin Cartwright is a UI/Web Designer & Front-End Developer from Baltimore, Maryland. He spends the majority of his time focusing on user experience research and is passionate about building things for the web.

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