Recovering Your Common Sense: How to Rein in Information Overload

“There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher

“The abundance of books is a distraction.” — Lucius Annaeus Seneca, ancient Roman philosopher and statesman.

Recovering Your Common Sense:  How to Rein in Information Overload  by Laura Stack #productivitySocial researcher S.A. Wurman once calculated that every issue of the New York Times contains more information than the average person in Elizabethan England learned in their lifetime. Wurman released this startling tidbit back in 1987—before the info-splosion we call the Internet really got started. Imagine how much worse we have it today, with our daily deluge of print and broadcast news, webpages, social media, email, and more.

Some researchers claim we now create more information every two days than we did from ancient times up to the year 2003. Add in easy access to nearly every book, magazine, and newspaper ever published, and it’s hardly surprising that, according to research analyst Jonathan B. Spira, “94% of knowledge workers have felt overwhelmed to the point of incapacitation by the amount of information they encounter on a daily basis.”

There are nearly 79 million information workers in the United States alone. The fact that 94% of us have been vaporlocked by information overload at one time or another has sobering ramifications for productivity—to the tune of billions of dollars per year.

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

Gertrude Stein saw this coming long ago. Early in the 20th century, she pointed out, “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” Her observation seems especially apropos today, most of a century later.

Stein had no trouble calling a spade a spade; she spoke her mind about whatever she observed. A true iconoclast and self-described genius, she helped redefine English literature, breaking it out of 19th century constraints and pushing the envelope of experimental fiction, poetry, and plays. She spent most of her adult life in France, reigning as a guru over a salon of expatriate American artists and writers, dispensing the common sense that so many were losing even then to the influx of new information.

Reducing Your Information Intake

As with so many other aspects of modern work life, the only way to overcome “infobesity” is to triage mercilessly, and then reduce your intake forever after. Keep these tips in mind as you work toward stemming the info-tide.

1. Limit your exposure to external information at work. Rather than check your social media and newsfeeds during your lunch and breaks, actually take those breaks. Eat, talk to people, go for a walk—just get away from your desk. You have enough work-related information to deal with. When you do check the news, stick to newspaper and iPhone formats. They’re more consolidated, with fewer links and ads to drag you off in other directions.

2. Check email and phone messages only at specific times. If your job allows, set aside brief blocks of time where you focus exclusively on your messages. I process email five to seven times a day, getting the inbox down to zero, reprioritizing accordingly, and then working for a focused period. When I’m focused, I don’t check email (turn off your global alerts), turn my phone to airplane mode, and forward my calls to voicemail.

3. Set filters on your email. Every email client lets you filter email according to specific rules, automatically discarding messages that fail to meet those standards. Blacklists allow you to tell the system to immediately discard email from specific addresses, so you never even see it. Whitelists, on the other hand, specify precisely who you’re willing to receive mail from, accepting only their emails and blocking the rest. You can also create rules to automatically file with certain words in the subject line in particular folders, or play a sound when an email is received from a particular person.

4. Employ the right means of communication. A brief phone call can often save days of email strings. If you have an email that goes back and forth and back and forth, it’s often more efficient just to pick up the phone. In other cases, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting. Rather than waste time and proliferate unnecessary information, carefully select the most efficient means of communication for each issue you face.

5. Hone your online research skills. Take advantage of Boolean operators and other simple shortcuts to streamline your searches and return fewer, better-targeted results.

6. Maximize your reading time. If you have a lot of material to wade through, adopt a speed-reading system like J. Michael Bennett’s Rhythmic Perusal method (my personal favorite). Also carry around material for downtime reading, either as printouts in your briefcase or electronic copies on an e-reader. That way, you can read whenever you’re stuck in traffic, standing in line, or waiting for the doctor to see you. You might also dedicate the occasional weekend to catching up on work-related reading.

Grabbing a Lifeline

If you ever find yourself paralyzed by information overload, try scaling back as far as you possibly can. Ideally, you’ll end up well below your overwhelm threshold, whereupon you can start adding back information sources one at a time, gradually refining your ability to handle each until you feel you can add another. Maintain with the methods I’ve outlined here, and you’ll find it easier to handle the inflow in the future.

Are you among the 94% of people who’ve been temporarily paralyzed by information overload? What put you there, and how did you save yourself? Please post your story and favorite trick or tip. Thank you!



  1. Laura,

    Great advice! Thanks for this article.

    As someone who helps professionals to sell their services, I have learned that information and email overload is the main reason given as to why such professionals do very little connecting with prospects. They’re essentially hoping that the phone will ring, rather than scheduling time to reach out. My best advice for that is to make outreach a priority, meaning that it’s first on your list — before email and all other information perusal — at least once a week for two hours. Amazing how difficult it is to put even that small discipline in place in an information-choked world!

    Thanks for providing some “ways out of the forest”!

    Lenann McGookey Gardner

    • Lenann,

      Your comment made me laugh aloud! What a novel concept to pick up the phone. Normally I’ll watch an email going back and forth and back and forth, and I’m thinking, “If you just would have picked up the phone, you could have resolved this in two minutes!” Most people understand the very few high-impact tasks that will have a tremendous impact on their value as an employee in their particular role (like calling clients is for salespeople), yet they can suddenly find 20 very important things to do before doing it! It’s a glorious form of procrastination to feel “busy.” If you can’t help diving into your email, I like your idea to not even open it! Make those calls first, and then check your various hot spots. Because checking first will certainly provide all sorts of other interesting diversions…as your sales and profitability slowly tank. Thanks for writing!


  2. Laura,

    Great point here. I believe as a busy person, or most probably entrepreneurs are prone to ‘infobesity’, which can cause stress throughout the day. Maybe it’s a great advice to spend at least an hour or two of the specific tasks (i.e, emails, phone calls, etc.) you need to do throughout the week on Sundays. This will help lessen your thoughts of the things that you need to do and keep things simple.

    • I agree Steve! While I don’t spend two hours in the office on Sunday, I DO like to check in before I retire for the evening. I do a quick process of the inbox, check the calendar for the week to get the lay of the land, and organize my Task list for the next day. I find this quick pass eliminates any stress I might be feeling about what I might encounter and makes me confident I’ve set myself up for a productive Monday and week ahead. Thanks for your input!