Thursday, 12 November 2015

Managing Information Overload

Last week I moderated the #LibChatNZ chat on 'Managing Information Overload'.  It's a topic I deal with on a daily basis!  In fact, I blogged about this in 2013 - Confessions of an Info-holic.  When I look at that post it reminds me of the stress I was under back then and the steps I took to try and overcome my information addiction.  I did have some short-term success but I find myself as buried as ever in emails and websites, blogs and webinars, Facebook and Google+.  

Monday night's chat reminded me that I am not the only one with information issues.  @CorinneHinton described the vicious cycle of information overload really well, "collecting too much stuff and not reading it, watching it, or listening to it before more stuff arrives".

The responses to the chat have me pondering whether librarians are in fact the most vulnerable to information overload.  After all, information is a big part of our job.  As @Maree Silver said "We deal with information constantly - it's who we are".  In a way our strengths as librarians - our curiosity, our connections through networks and our knowledge of a wide range of information sources and platforms - are the very things that create our susceptibility to drowning in information.  We value information to such a degree that we find it hard to ignore any of it.  And we're very good at finding LOTS of it.  The internet gives us more sources than we will ever need.  As @ForrestC8 said "It's like being a kid in the sweet shop!"  @DavisonNicki talked about "thinking that one day [we] will have time to "catch up"!"  Ain't that the truth!  But with a continual supply of information at our fingertips we can't catch up unless we get better at managing our information intake.  

I found an interesting article as I was researching information overload (from multiple sources of course!).  My new favourite phrase comes from it - "Stop Compulsively Learning".  That's what I do!  It's like an addiction, that anticipation of the new things I might learn.  And it doesn't seem as bad as being addicted to other things but when you think about it, trying to know everything keeps you from having the time to do some of those things you are learning about.  

Sometimes I wonder whether this is a form of procrastination.  Once I've read all thirty articles I've collected about Makerspaces THEN I'll start to set one up.  Do we really need new information or are we avoiding that hard first step of getting started on something new? 

Or is it that we set ourselves such high standards that we dare not start until fully prepared?  Does perfectionism come into it?  And will this mindset work in these changing times?  Kathryn Schravemade said during her keynote address at the SLANZA conference that we can't worry about being perfect in a world that changes so often.  She said "You don't have time to be perfect!"  I think this definitely applies to information too.  For me, the perfect amount of information is all of it, but if we are to keep up with our changing world we need to be more selective.

At the same time, we can't totally ignore the world around us.  Roger Dennis, another keynote speaker at the SLANZA conference, talked about missing paradigm shifts.  He said that it is easy to miss them if you are focussing on what you do and not noticing what is going on in the world around you. It is important to notice what is going on in other industries as it may impact on you.  So we can't put the blinders on altogether, it's just a question of balance.

In the chat there were a number of useful suggestions on managing information overload and you can see them in the archive here (Q5).  One platform I use is Diigo, a social bookmarking tool. I admit that sometimes storing a website there is simply a way of soothing my anxiety that I might lose it.  By dealing with information that looks useful but I have don't have time for, it relieves my stress even though I know I probably won't ever go looking for it again.  Crazy, huh?!

Some of the #LibChatNZ discussion reminded me of a story I heard once about a man who was chopping a tree with a blunt ax.  He was asked why he didn't sharpen it but replied "I don't have time for that!".  We need to sacrifice a little time in the short-term, looking at our information processes and making them more efficient, so that we save more time in the long run.

I think it is time for me to be a lot more deliberate about managing my information consumption.  I need to trust my ability to get the information I need when I need it.  I don't need to know everything now, and I can't keep up when I try to.  This is the way education is moving now anyway - the way our students will be approaching information. But it's harder for us than for our students because our love affair with information has been a long-term one. 

Equally important is the shift in education from consuming information to creating it.  Information overload can mean you get "stuck" in consuming.  Many of us are looking at bringing more creation activities into our libraries.  In order to do that we also need to change how WE approach information so that we are open to using information to create new things.  That is what Makerspaces are all about.

Even though attending the chat meant gaining more information, I'm glad that I did it.  Talking with others helped clarify my thoughts on this issue and comforted me with the knowledge that I am not the only one getting overwhelmed with information.  It's not something I face alone, in a way it's a side effect of the profession.

I will probably be blogging about the same issue a couple of years from now, and that's OK!  The solutions are not simple and require vigilance and perseverance.  For the future, stressed me, reading this post again as a plea for help, remember this:
  1. Be a better information gatekeeper - think about whether what you are about to read, sign up to or participate in fits your priorities right now.  If not, trust yourself that you can find more useful information when, or if, you need it in the future.
  2. Set aside time to regularly manage your information (particularly those pesky emails).  In other words sharpen your ax!  Unsubscribe from mailing lists, delete read emails, put important emails in folders and prune the blogs you are following in Feedly.  Be ruthless!
  3. Check your consumption/creation balance.  Are you making the hard choices around information and leaving yourself enough time to create things with your knowledge?
  4. Get over your FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and Stop Compulsively Learning!!!


  1. I could have written this post myself, but instead I was Consuming more info! Yes I do think it's a particular plight of libs, as we are not only always interested but also seek to support so many with varied interests. It's always about balance it seems; something I so want to achieve!

    1. It did occur to me that I might be adding to other people's information overload! In our Twitter chat @MiriamTuohy talked about "Librarians taking the info-load for their school community" which I think echoes your point about supporting so many.

  2. I so agree with all of your points Michelle! This is an excellent post - thank you for sharing :)

    1. Thanks Carole, the post was really like therapy for me :)