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The Impact of Information Overload

4 January, 2021
Information Overload and it's Impact illustration of people on a pontoon with informational screens and maps

At the very heart of any internal communications strategy is the monumental task of making yourself heard through the vast digital information overload. We live in a world that is constantly buzzing with information. We are bombarded from all sides with sound bites, adverts, texts, social media, emails, phone calls. And your internal communications have to fight their way through all of that.

Once upon a time, all information was communicated by word of mouth, through conversations and story telling. Even after the invention of the printing press, the majority of the population still relied upon verbal communications. Advances in technology and literacy have made communications so much easier and faster. The advent of the internet meant we could send vast amounts of information with just the press of a button. However, is it possible that at some point, we lost sight of the purpose of our communications? There is so much data sloshing around the planet that we are in danger of drowning in an information overload.

Information overload facts and figures

Back in 2006, a mere 14 years ago, the amount of digital information floating around on earth was approximately 150 exabytes (1 exabyte = 1 million million bytes). That might sound a lot but compare it to today and we now have 40,000 exabytes of digital data zipping back and forth.

Worldwide, we send 23 billion text messages and around 306 billion emails every day. The average Brit receives 93 texts and social media notifications, and an office worker will receive some 121 emails each day. The average American is exposed to almost 5000 ads per day, compared with 500 back in 1970, via TV, radio, social media, etc. Mobile phones and smart devices have made all this information instantly available to us 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, it also means that we never escape it.

The tragedy of the commons

In England, commons are areas of land where local people have the right to roam, to forage and collect wood, and to graze animals. That is an oversimplification but you get the idea. Everyone benefits from the common resource. Until, that is, one or two people see an opportunity to enrich themselves. They start grazing more cattle on the land, thereby increasing their share of the benefit while everyone else suffers from the overgrazing and depletion of the shared resource. Everyone then jumps on the bandwagon. The problem is, if everyone does it, nobody benefits.

In much the same way, overuse of our shared communication channels has rendered them less and less effective as the volume of communications increases. Our internal communications strategies have to break through the information overload to be heard above this digital noise.

How information overload affects our thinking

We are now exposed to so many pieces of information and marketing messages that we are all becoming far more media savvy. We are increasingly sceptical about what we see and hear. We question the quality of news and how much we can rely on it. Our audience is becoming more cynical and weary of the types of messages we are trying to get across. Our communications strategy has to overcome an increasing resistance to anything seen as corporate, uninteresting, unreliable or too pushy.

Continuous partial attention

Back in 1998, Linda Stone coined the phrase ‘continuous partial attention’ and it is something that almost every 21st century adult suffers from. Another great word for it is ephemeralization. We are focused on so many different things, but all at quite a superficial or ephemeral level. Our attention is very thinly spread and we never manage to concentrate in depth on any one thing. Some may call it multi-tasking but really, it is a positive way of describing not being particularly productive. Studies have shown that multi-tasking can lead to increased stress. Over time, our ability to focus decreases. It can prohibit reflection and contemplation, affecting our ability to make proactive decisions.

The impact of information overload on productivity

You know what it’s like. You are trying to concentrate hard on a task but are constantly interrupted by phone calls, emails and 101 other things pinging and popping up in front of you. A very interesting study recently looked at recovery time – the time it takes us to re-focus on the task in hand after such an interruption. Apparently, it normally takes around 5 minutes for most of us to get back into what we were doing. So, a one minute phone call takes us away from our task for 6 minutes.

Another study showed that 23% of our working day is spent reading and dealing with emails. From a productivity perspective, when we think about PDRs and work objectives, it is doubtful that almost a quarter of our time has been allocated purely to emails. On average, we check our devices for emails about 36 times every hour. Now this might sound like a trivial distraction but multiply it by every individual in your organisation and the impact is staggering. We are so busy trying to absorb an ever-growing flow of information that we are missing or even ignoring things. It is estimated that in the US alone, this lack of focus costs the economy around $1.5 trillion per year, not to mention the affect it has on mental health and the ability to focus or make decisions.

Next time…

There is no doubt that information overload is something we must all take very seriously. There is no way we can stop it so we have to find ways to rise above it. Our next post, The Communications Strategy Challenge, will look at how to make our communications stand out, and how to avoid becoming just another part of the information overload. Plus a free to download Communications Strategy quick reference guide.

 

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