In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore information overload and its impact in how we faction at work and home. How can we restore sanity back to the never-ending flow of information.
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Irvine: And welcome everyone to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. My name is Irvine Nugent, and, as always, I’m so happy to be joined by my co-host and collaborator, Bridgette Theurer. Bridgette, how you doing today?
Bridgette: Well, Irvine, I’m doing great, thank you for asking. It’s so nice to be here with you. I’ve been really looking forward to our conversation and we have an interesting and highly relevant topic on tap, so tell our listeners what it is.
Irvine: Yeah. Well, Bridgette, I don’t know about you, but this is something that I am hearing more and more and more about in the coaching sessions that I have with my clients. And so, today’s episode is all about this feeling of overwhelm from an onslaught of information. And what I’d like to do is really explore, is it getting worse? Is this antidotal or actually is there evidence that it’s getting worse and really what impact does it have on our behavior? And really what can we do about it?
Bridgette: We have mentioned that acronym, VUCA, in other episodes, right? Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And to me, this topic is about complexity. Because there’s just so much more information we have to sort through, we have to figure out if it’s important, we get inundated and there’s so much that goes into, even sometimes a simple decision or choice, so I couldn’t agree with you more. And, at a gut level, it feels like it’s getting worse, to me; because it also comes up in the coaching sessions that I’m having and in my own life, but is there any evidence to suggest it’s getting worse?
Irvine: Well, yes. I have explored this, and indeed there is evidence; when you just think about it, the growth of the internet, television is 24 hours now, our mobile phones; actually, we receive five times more information every day than we did in 1986, just think about that. That’s just barely what, almost 30 years ago. And that really pales into significance when we think about all of the emails and the social network sites and the texting that we have. And so, every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just 24 years ago. That’s a 200 fold increase.
And when you think about, kind of, modern life, I love this one. A single edition, a Sunday edition of the New York Times contains more information than a typical person in the 19th century faced in their entire lifetime. When you think about that, it just really puts it into context. And I just also found a couple of surveys as well, which highlighted this, that 36% of managers’ report that poor health is due to excessive information that they’re required to process in the workplace. That’s over a third. And then 68% of those managers felt that information overload had a negative impact on their personal and professional relationships. So, it’s not just a gut feeling, there’s hard evidence that we are actually processing more information, we are feeling overloaded with that information, and it’s impacting our behaviors and it’s impacting our lives.
Bridgette: Well, for sure it’s impacting our resilience, right? If we talk about the capacity to lead with calm, clarity, and conviction, it’s, kind of, hard to do that when you feel buried underneath a mound of never-ending, constantly streaming information. So, I definitely relate to this. I just got off a coaching session earlier today with a woman who was talking about this very thing, that she was feeling incredibly overwhelmed and that so much information was coming at her from so many different sources that she felt almost paralyzed by it. And she just thought, well, I’m in true survival mode now. I’m just going to hang on as best I can. But she was really feeling the effects of this.
So, I think it’s highly relevant, and I’m guessing our listeners are shaking their heads, yes. So, Irvine, what about the neuroscience behind this? Is there anything you’ve been reading about that you think can help us unpack this a little bit?
Irvine: Yeah, the first thing is to, I think just really acknowledge how large the information pool out there is. Where do we normally go if we’re looking for information, we all Google it, this is where we go to, Google’s our friend. And yet, every day around 2.5 quintillion bytes is produced on the website, new bytes. That’s a 1 with 18 zeros, almost impossible to think about. The other day I was looking for a movie in Netflix, kind of, you go and you, kind of, think, oh, there’s so much choice and then there are thousands. And then there are all of the other streaming videos. It would actually take, I love this, 47 million years to watch all of the videos that are out there.
And so, we’re founded, as a nation, on choice is good, however, too much choice can actually paralyze as well. And so, information overload, what do we mean when we say that? It’s actually the state of feeling overwhelmed by just the volume of information to point at. And really what happens is we come away feeling more confused, rather than knowledgeable about a certain topic. And it can impact us with brain fog and, ultimately, with difficulty making decisions. So, Bridgette, I know we’ve talked about this, so what actually is happening in the brain, therefore, when we come in and we have all of this information just coming at us, really minute by minute every day?
Bridgette: Yeah, well, as you said, there are some interesting and helpful facets of this that we have at our disposal, this amazing thing called the internet, and we have a question, we just ask it and we get all of these amazing answers at our fingertips, right? And we wouldn’t want to go back to not having that. However, from a brain perspective, there are some real challenges with too much information coming at us. It impacts, not only our memory, but our emotional wellbeing, which I think is interesting. You already alluded to that, right? With people feeling a sense of overwhelm and it affecting their emotional wellbeing.
So, when you look inside the brain, what we see is it turns out there is an optimal volume, in terms of information that we can process, that we can hold in our working memory. And when the information that we’re dealing with exceeds that, there are some pretty significant repercussions for that, in terms of our ability to comprehend material, to learn it, to focus our concentration, to problem solve, and to make decisions. I think that’s the crux of it for leaders is how do we make decisions and how do we find that sweet spot between making sure we’re thoughtful and we have enough information to ground the decision, but we don’t get lost in it and never make the decision at all.
And it also turns out interestingly, that there’s a link between information overload and the arousal of the amygdala. So, when we have too much information coming at us, there’s an increase in the activity of the amygdala. And we know that the amygdala is one of the centers that has to do with emotion and has to do with threat detection. So, you can easily see how we can start to feel under siege, that our stress levels would rise, that our anxiety levels would peak once the information we’re trying to deal with has exceeded that optimal volume that the brain, right? Really likes. And then I think this is maybe the most interesting thing, to me. That the amygdala regulates negative emotion and negative self-concept.
In other words, our ability to keep negative thoughts and self-appraisals in check, and this might diminish when our working memory is overtaxed. So, it’s not just that we become, perhaps less skillful problem solvers and less skillful decision makers, but our own self-concept can be affected by this dilemma that we’re talking about. I find that interesting.
Irvine: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s almost like we were so hard on ourselves that we set ourselves up for failure and then all of a sudden that impacts even our own esteem about what we’re able to do and not able to do.
Bridgette: So, this is, obviously, a relevant challenge for everybody. Whomever we are, whatever role that we have, the information that we’re exposed to, as you said, is just astronomical. I can’t believe that fact about it would take us 47 years to watch all of the movies out there.
Irvine: 47 million years.
Bridgette: That’s what I meant. 47 minutes. Okay. We better start binging now.
Irvine: That’s one hell of a binge, so it is.
Bridgette: So, what does this look like in the workplace or at home for that matter? What do you think?
Irvine: Yeah. So, it’s interesting, I think, let’s just look, kind of, at a big macro level. And I think one of the things that we’re seeing, and I just hear this time and time again, too much information is being shared in the workplace. People are feeling sieged, overwhelmed. And what’s the problem is that not all of that information, in fact tiny bits of it are actually relevant. So, we’re seeing lots of irrelevant information exchange at work. And then there’s this lack of alignment between the discussions going on and what’s important and a lack of alignment between what’s really the vision and where we should go. So, people are really dealing with this.
And I think behaviors that we see, I think the first one is, is multitasking. People actually feel I need to multitask. If I can’t multitask, I cannot be successful. And it’s almost worn with, kind of, a badge of pride, of honor. I have five things and I’m managing them and people are wonderful in it, it’s just really the signs are saying, no, you’re not. I’m so sorry. You may think that you are a brilliant multitasker, you may think that you’re able to balance things so wonderfully. But really what’s happening, of course, is that the brain loves to focus on individual and single tasks. And what we know, and there’s been a lot of research on this, is that when we jump from task to task, which invariably happens.
I hear this all of the time, well, I’m working on this report, which I have to write, and then I get an email and, of course, the temptation is, well, I need to look at that email, of course. Or else as a text message comes up or else we see someone walking by and we want to meet them, and so we’re all distracted. And so, we move to that and we think that we’re seamlessly moving back after seeing that email. But, of course, we’re not. What happens is that it actually takes 10 to 24 minutes; think about that, 10 to 24 minutes to return to full focus on the task. And I even see this. One of my problems is I’ll read a book and, of course, now I’m reading the book on iPad, right?
Irvine: And I get to the book, and I did this the other day and there was like, something had mentioned someplace and I’m thinking, I’ve never heard that place. Let me think about that. So, then I go and I pull up a browser
Bridgette: You’re like my husband.
Irvine: And then I’m reading about the place, et cetera. And 30 minutes later I said, oh, I’m reading the book, let me go back to the book. And so, it’s just this incessant wanting to know and more information coming in then the distraction. And, of course, then the second behavior that we need to talk about is that that’s destroying our performance. Because each and every day we are spending an inordinate amount of time trying to find information that will answer questions or information that will help us complete our work. And, of course, the question is when’s enough, enough?
And we’ve become very poor at answering that. Because the solution is not outside of us, because there’ll never be enough; there’ll always be more information, there’ll always be another article, there’ll always be something that we can do. And so, this impacts therefore, our ability, really, just to batten down and make decisions and performance, and so we get into, kind of, this confusion and in fact, it’s so funny, I come to this podcast today after a coaching session this morning, and it’s as if this person wanted to be a model for today. It was so obvious that they were struggling to really feel that they were making a difference, in the sense they felt total overwhelmed in all of the information, because they said and questions like, well, I don’t know.
I don’t know when to make the decision. I don’t know what to do. And that point you made about self-esteem, there was one line, one thing they said on the call today and they said, I just don’t know if I’m good enough. And it was just you could see that this is impacting their whole esteem and the job. And, of course, the reality is when we were working, all of the messages were like, you’re doing an amazing job. You are holding things together in a way that other people are not. But this internal feeling was that, no, I’m not, because there’s so much more I could do and there’s so much more information that I need, et cetera. So, this is the problem is we never feel it’s enough, we always feel that there’s more.
Bridgette: Oh, indeed. And it’s an illusion, isn’t it? That more information is going to steady us, and it is going to make us confident and make us sure. Now, sometimes that’s true. Yeah. Sometimes we’re lacking information. But many times that’s anxiety talking. right?
Bridgette: If I could just get more data. If I could just ask one more question, if I could read one more book, if I could listen to one more podcast, huh. Whatever the case may be. And at the end of the day, there’s a real difference between having information and having insight.
Bridgette: They’re not one and the same.
Irvine: I love that. I love that, information and insight. Yeah. So, Bridgette, have you any other things that you see behavioral impact of this phenomena in the workplace?
Bridgette: You’ve really spoken to this, but I want to call it out again. And that is, I see a huge impact on my ability and my client’s ability to be truly present in their day. It’s as if being present is, sort of, I don’t know, it’s always been elusive, but I think it’s even more elusive. I’m thinking of a client in particular, who told me that she, for the last year had never been on a single call, so this was during COVID. She’d never been on a single video call, where she hadn’t been working her inbox completely the entire time. And I said, why are you doing that? And she said, if I don’t, there is no way I’ll keep up. And I have to be responsive. There’s just no way.
Anyway, I think that’s a huge impact. And if we’re not present in our day, we’re really not living our lives. And it’s an interesting thing, the connection between being present and having memories. When we’re not there for our lives, we don’t have a memory of it. In the same way. So, I think that’s a big deal. The paralysis of analysis certainly can set in to where, we don’t really make the decision. As we were talking about, we feel like we need more data. And I want to turn to Friedman on this one, because he had a lot, Ed Friedman, to say about this. Where he said, what’s really going on there when leaders are putting off decisions, is their anxiety has taken hold of them and they’re looking for more information as a way to calm themselves, but the exact opposite happens.
And so, what he’s taught is, look, there comes a point when you have to decide that you have enough information and you have to make that call, and here was his approach. And I think this is interesting. So, he said he would stop seeking more information when the same question that he asked to different people, different experts produce no new information. Then he knew that was it. So, he was in the hospital for a very serious medical issue and he was, obviously, talking to experts and lots of experts were weighing in on what should be done. And he said he approached his physicians as if they were his cabinet and he was the president.
So, they’re experts and we want our president to surround themselves with experts and consult them. But guess who has to make the decision? The president does. That’s what he or she is elected for. In our own lives, I think we forget this sometimes. That no single expert can replace that responsibility. And it’s a lonely one that we, as leaders have, to sort through the information and, ultimately, decide. And we have to decide before we have all of the answers almost all of the time.
Bridgette: And that’s the dilemma, right?
Irvine: Yeah. Absolutely.
Bridgette: So, that’s what I’ve been observing. And, of course, we’ve already talked about the impact on self-esteem and confidence and stress-level, so there’s a mental health aspect. It’s incredibly draining.
Irvine: Absolutely. Exhausting.
Bridgette: It’s so tiring. Okay, so that’s what we’re dealing with. And so, Irvine, let’s share with our listeners some strategies, because, of course, we know it’s not going to magically go away. We’re going to wake up tomorrow and we’re still going to produce, how many newspapers do we produce with all of our stuff?
Irvine: We are going to produce six newspapers. It’s Oh my God. So, as we think about this, let’s do two ways. I want to suggest a few areas that we can manage some techniques, perhaps; that we can use. But we always like to look at things from a systems perspective. And I think this is a perfect example of, and you’ve already mentioned, kind of, Friedman and some of that. So, why don’t I just deal with some techniques and then maybe, Bridgette, you can, kind of, look at this and put the lens out a little bit from a systems perspective, what’s going on here. But one of the things that technique would be to cement your memory.
So, one of the things that’s happening is that our short-term memory is overloaded. It can only take in so much. And so, what happens is that our short-term memory becomes overloaded. Nothing’s processed into our long-term memory, and this is where the fog comes, we, kind of, shut down a little bit. And so, what that means is we need to have little breaks, we need to have breaks during the day when we can, kind of, take in some of that information and then just let it settle in.
And this is one of the problems; one of the things that I’m hearing, I’m sure you are as well, Bridgette, is that while COVID let us work from home, et cetera, what’s happened is people have insane schedules. That their meetings are back to back to back to back, no one’s having lunch. I had a training session in Phoenix last week and I asked people to put up their hands, how many people take a lunch break? 3 people out of 52 people present said they were.
Bridgette: Three out of how many?
Irvine: 3 out of 52 said they took a lunch break. And it was a little bit of a badge of honor there. And I had to turn around to the group and I said, this is not good, folks. This is not good. And while the company probably appreciates the fact that you are doing this, this is not good. And so, can we begin to build some breaks during the day, where we’re giving our mind some rest? It’s like the little proverbial thing, you’re thinking through a problem and your insight comes because you walk in the park or you take a shower and, of course, what’s happening there is you’re giving a break and dopamine is allowed to be released. You’re like, ah, insight. And then the second thing is just be very conscious about task switching.
As much as we love to think that we can multitask, we really can’t. And there are some great techniques out there; one of the techniques I use is called the Pomodoro Technique, which really is splitting the day into 25-minute segments with a five-minute break. And you focus on one thing just for the 25-minutes and then you come up for a break. And I have found, I’ve become so much more efficient in using this technique than really the old adage of going from thing to thing to thing. And I really try and shutdown things and I really focus on one thing. And I think people that are able to focus on one thing for longer periods become much more productive.
So, I think those are techniques and I think we have to have techniques and they all evolve around creating discipline around the data, realizing that we are facing a monster that’s not going to die. And so, we have to live with this monster and the only way we can do this is by, actually, controlling what comes into us and creating breaks, et cetera. So, I think that’s important. So, Bridgette, from a systems perspective, what would you say is a way to approach this?
Bridgette: Well, I think, we tend to look at information and decision making as living solely in the rational domain. We’ve talked about how every organization, every family, every team has both a rational system and an emotional system. I think we look at, okay, well, we need to know what the facts are and let’s gather the data and then let’s make our decision, and we think of it solely as a rational phenomena. But, as all of this information that we’ve shared so far shows, it’s deeply rooted in anxiety. And anxiety is contagious. It affects our emotions. Our emotions affect the way we look at information and so forth. So, think from a leadership perspective, it’s important to realize, one, that you can be overloading your own people with too much information and making them anxious.
Bridgette: And you can be making people anxious, if you’re not aware of your own reaction to this information overload. In other words, when you feel this sense of overwhelm, do you just resort to the quick fix? Let’s just do something? Or do you tend to be that person as we, kind of, suggest it that says, let me have one more conversation. Let me ask one more question. Let me consult one more expert. Because each of us has a default tendency under pressure and stress. So, know which one yours is. And I think that can help us to be thoughtful in, kind of, knowing where are we in this process of information? What is our relationship to it? And do we have enough to make the call?
Because at the end of the day, as leaders, that’s what we are actually responsible for doing, is making the call. Yeah. And I don’t think we recognize that doing that is heavily influenced by the amount of anxiety that is circulating within us and around us. So, that’s what came to mind.
Irvine: I love that. Yeah. Just really focus on how we’re functioning through it all. And I think, at times, we do, we forget about how emotional this whole thing is. And I’m dealing with that and to really be curious about why. Why do we need the more information? What’s driving that? And, at times, it’s larger than you. Record more information, I can make a better decision. But is that really what’s driving it? And, at times, that’s not what’s driving it.
Bridgette: Yeah. Indeed. Well, so, Irvine, we always leave our listeners with a practice and I don’t know, as I was listening to you, I tucked away already some things I’m going to try, but is there one more, sort of, core practice you would like to share?
Irvine: Well, this is a practice we, actually, talked about, I think, really in episode number one. And I think I want to adapt it a little bit for today because I thin, it’s a beautiful practice for this and it’s called getting on the balcony. And what we mean by getting on the balcony is taking time just to step back and to observe yourself and the system around you with a lot of curiosity in order to be able to have more thoughtful action, and maybe some questions to think about that. So, when you feel yourself overwhelmed and you’re scratching your head, where do I go from here?
Ask questions like, what’s really going on here? What really is the core of my need for more information? And what am I anxious about? What am I anxious about if I don’t have this information? Is it that I might make a mistake? Is it that it’ll show me in a bad light? What’s driving that anxiety and that need for information? And then how am I reacting to the pressures and stressors that I feel? And is my anxiety, my reactivity helping or hindering the situation? And then how can I remain calm in this system and pave way for clear thinking of everyone around me.
And then a final question is, do I need to take a courageous stand? Because sometimes making a decision takes courage, and especially when you could say, oh, there’s so much more information I can take in; to actually say, enough. We need to move to a decision and is this the time, for me, to take a courageous stand and make the decision?
Bridgette: I love that. And that’s such a great way to aim that practice of getting on the balcony. Because we won’t be able to really see where we are in this process of dealing with information until we step back and up. So, that’s great. I love that, Irvine. So, wow, what a great conversation. This resuscitating ourselves from information overload is, it’s interesting because, I guess, I didn’t really realize until you shared with me some of these statistics, just what a difference has occurred over the last couple of decades. And how toxic this can be. We talk about toxic workplaces; I don’t think people, typically, associate information overload with it. But it is. It has such a profound impact, right?
Irvine: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s so benign, it’s just information, but the impact is huge. Yeah.
Bridgette: Oh, it is. It’s huge. And we can do something about it, so that’s the good news. And to our listeners, we hope you have found a nugget or two in this, that you can use to do something about this. And if you do share it with your team, because they need help too. Everybody’s under the same load, right?
Bridgette: Yeah. So, Irvine, what’s on tap for next time?
Irvine: Well, it’s interesting. We are actually going to look at uncertainty and from a different lens. We’re going to look at the upside of uncertainty and we will discuss that in our next episode.
Bridgette: Looking forward to that. That should be a very good one, because who isn’t dealing with uncertainty right now in some form or fashion, right?
Irvine: Absolutely. Yes.
Bridgette: All right. Well thank you so much, Irvine. It’s been great as always.
Irvine: Likewise, Bridgette, thank you so much to everyone for listening in and, hopefully, you found this episode of value. As always, if you would like to share it with someone, I’m sure your people in your circle who are saying, I just can’t cope with it, I’m bogged down in information, said, ah, we have a podcast episode that might be really helpful. Please feel free to share it.
Bridgette: All right, take care, folks.
Irvine: Bye now.