Focusing to Beat Information Overload

Articles, videos, TV, radio, movies, books, Twitter, Facebook, websites, online forums, e-mail, advice from other people—sometimes the amount of information coming at you seems overwhelming. Yet other times it’s fine, and you feel like you can handle it. It’s not just the sheer amount of information that creates a feeling of overload. Rather, it’s how you approach processing information.

Focus is the cornerstone of managing information overload, and there are three important ways of focusing. First, take time to define your vision and to develop goals that will help you achieve it. Then you can more easily determine which information is important and which you can, and should, ignore.

Second, focus your attention. Multitasking can be useful if you’re combining several activities that don’t require much concentration, such as listening to an audiobook while exercising. But if you’re doing information-intensive work, such as writing a report or reading technical or complex material, multitasking will just break your concentration. That makes it harder to grasp new concepts and reduces your productivity. If you’re having trouble concentrating, try setting a timer for 20 minutes. Work on just one information-intensive project during that time. After 20 minutes, take a five-minute break, and repeat the sequence once or twice if you have time. After an hour or so, take a longer break.

Visual thinking is a third way of focusing. Doodling can help you focus by reducing daydreaming while you listen. Sketching your ideas, writing ideas on cards and sorting them, and mind mapping all tap into the power of visual thinking. Highlighting important material with colored markers or pencils is a tried-and-true way of marking important information. Be sparing in marking text, though, so that the highlighted information clearly stands out.

For more techniques on beating information overload, claim your free e-course, Beat Information Overload the 5F Way, by entering your first name and primary e-mail address in the sign-up form to the right.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Mohan Arun L (@marun2 on Twitter) February 1, 2010, 8:58 am

    I am a subscriber of the free ecourse and looking forward to know more about combating information overload with tips, techniques and appropriate methods! For the third way of focusing to combat information overload, i.e., use of visual thinking technique, mind maps are sophisticated and useful. You could also use collaborative brainstorming, diagramming and mind mapping using tools like DabbleBoard,, Diagrammr and Scriblink. On related topic, for visual thinking, this set of Flickr photos is very enticing though I couldnt fathom them all, may be you could go through them and identify some common types of diagrams which we can use to control information overload. I also believe one technique of information overload management is “alternative” way of thinking or lateral thinking. I took a course called EREHWON in school and it taught very good methods and techniques of lateral thought, analysis, and communication. If you could somehow get that material from someone and present it here it would add value to the discussion!

  • Jane Plass February 1, 2010, 10:41 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Mind mapping is one of my favorite tools, and I talk about it in the fourth part of the e-course.

    I looked at the Flickr photos that you referred to (David Armano’s L+E Visual Thinking Archive). Many of these are unique visual representations of a topic or idea, but several are creative uses of the tried-and-true Venn diagram. The overlapping circles of a Venn diagram can still be useful in understanding how concepts are related.

    The term lateral thinking is credited to Edward de Bono. He’s written several books on it, including New Think: The Use of Lateral Thinking in the Generation of New Ideas (1968) , Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step (1970), and Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas (1992). The de Bono Group LLC also has a good overview on lateral thinking.

  • Helene Desruisseaux February 8, 2010, 5:45 pm

    Isn’t amazing how the day can slip away without having done much that was productive…yet without having fun either?

    Loved your 20 minute timer suggestion. I’d like to make another point about multi-tasking: you can sense when you’re talking to someone on the phone and they’re reviewing their e-mails at the same time, even if there is no pause in their conversation. It makes you feel like you’re not important. Not good.

  • Bruce "the Mid-Life Mentor" February 8, 2010, 9:17 pm

    These are great ideas and some I employ now. I have never been a multi-tasker, I am lucky to do one at a time! 🙂
    I am interested in the visual thinking. Do you cover this in your course? I have looked at mind mapping and my mind finds it confusing. I like diagrams and algorithms – if this then that type doodling. I would like to become better at managing my attention on the right information.

  • Jane Plass February 12, 2010, 12:35 am

    Great points, Helene. Full attention is important for truly connecting with others.

    The Pomodoro technique is a formalized version of the timer technique. I don’t use this method every day, but do find it helpful when I have a big project or am having trouble getting started on a task.

  • Jane Plass February 12, 2010, 12:44 am

    Thanks, Bruce. I do cover visual thinking, especially mind mapping, in my e-course. My mind maps generally use few or no images, unlike those recommended by Tony Buzan, but they work well for me. I’ve also used flowcharts recently to diagram how my various web pages and autoresponder need to work together.

  • Kathryn Merrow - The Pain Relief Coach February 18, 2010, 5:00 pm

    You are right. Doing more than one thing at a time distracts us from all of them (regardless of what I said when I was a teenager.) Multi-tasking also takes some pleasure from us. When we do and concentrate on only one thing at a time, we can pay full attention to it. It would be nice, however, to be able to multi-task while I sleep. I could get so much more done!

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