Infobesity: Yep. It’s Time to Unplug... for Your Health

Information overload, infoxication, information anxiety, or information explosion: no matter what you call it, it’s about a lack of balance. I thought I had it under control, but I had to take an honest look at my new habits...

Infobesity: Yep. It’s Time to Unplug... for Your Health

“We roamed among people blinded by too much color, deafened by too much music, whose palates were dulled by too many tastes, and whose hearts were torn asunder by too much desire.”   ~~Wayne Ng, Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu

Too much information is actually a thing, and its consequences can be mentally paralyzing. Long before technology, you had to hunt for information. Research took us out of our homes and offices to places like libraries, courthouses, government offices, or classrooms.

I remember our first computer and getting the encyclopedia floppy disk for the kids. I was more excited than they were to see the thousands of pages and pictures on the screen. When I was a kid, a complete set of encyclopedias held a sacred spot on our living room bookshelves. When our set arrived in the mid-1960s, our parents told us to be careful turning the pages so we wouldn’t tear them. These books were special books, “not to be played with.” I’ll never forget my fascination with the transparent overly pages of the human skeleton, muscles, and nervous system. Fast forward to the 1990s, those pages and more appeared on our early-days computer.

But inevitably, the iterations came, and as we were able to access more information, faster, more easily, on more devices all of this data dumping and mining has had an insidious effect on us. TMI is making it more difficult for us to discern myth from fact, leading to poor decision-making.

Information overload, infoxication, information anxiety, or information explosion:  no matter what you call it, it’s about excess or a lack of balance. I thought I had it under control, but I had to take an honest look at my new habits: extreme scrolling, tiny typing on small devices, Googling everything, and obsessive social media check ins to see such enlightening topics as someone’s pretty desert. Enough! How do I get off this mental train? Not easily. It’s an addiction. And when you Google that word, it’s sobering: An addiction is a chronic dysfunction of the brain system that involves reward, motivation, and memory. It's about the way your body craves a substance or behavior, especially if it causes a compulsive or obsessive pursuit of “reward” and lack of concern over consequences.

Experts in psychology, business psychology, and business management have written hundreds of articles about our addiction to information and how it’s hurting us.

Essentially, when information input exceeds our capacity to process it, information overload occurs, and is likely to reduce the quality of the decisions we make.

University of Stuttgart Professor Dr. Peter Gordon Roetzel states that when a decision-maker is given many sets of information, such as complexity, amount, and contradiction, the quality of its decision is decreased because of the individual’s limitation of scarce resources to process all the information and optimally make the best decision.

I call it frustration. The experts say that information overload can lead to real feelings of anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and powerless, and mental fatigue. It can also lead to cognitive issues such as making hasty (often bad) decisions.

Hasty decision-making comes about because the brain is literally exhausted from trying to process tons of information. Some researchers use the term “cognitive overload” vs “information overload.” Processing large amounts of information is often done while multitasking—looking at social media while working, etc. Multitasking in particular has been shown to increase the release of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the hormone adrenaline, which are both associated with the “fight-or-flight” response.

This may explain some of the inexplicable behaviors of our fellow humans who share things such as their belief in Clorox as a COVID treatment, or aliens taking over our televisions; and their emotional attachment to information. They’re not uninformed, they’re over-informed and have lost the ability to judge the quality of what they’re being shown and told.

We flat out get too much information about everything. And the points of access to information are all around us. This has led to addictive behaviors in the consumption of information. So, how do we 12-step our way out of this dilemma? I Googled it and found four steps:

Step One: Schedule times to look at the news

No matter where you get your news from, it’s not a good idea to have a constant stream of it available throughout the day. This approach is most likely to lead to a lot of multitasking, which can increase your anxiety levels considerably. Schedule a time of day and a certain amount of time to look at the news. Set a timer to hold yourself accountable and ensure that you don’t get carried away. Try to choose a time of day that isn’t inherently anxiety-provoking for you for some other reason. If you’re feeling especially anxious on any given day, skip it and don’t look at the news at all.

Step Two: Turn off notifications on your phone

A lot of people have “push” notifications on their phones that alert them to new headlines. These are almost always a bad idea. Push services are especially associated with information overload because they give us information when we’re not even looking, causing us to multitask which also increases anxiety. Stay focused on what you’re doing and turn the notifications off.

Step Three: Be careful about checking social media

Recognize that social media is a news source, whether you like it or not. You may think you’re just doing something social and catching up on your friends’ lives but nowadays because so many people publish news articles on social media, you can expect to be confronted with a number of headlines. You should be intentional about checking social media the same way you are about checking the general news headlines. Pick a time of day to do it and set a timer.

Step Four: Don’t look at your phone before bed

This advice is true all the time but it’s especially important now. The light on your phone can keep you awake if you look at it too close to bedtime and so can reading anxiety-provoking news items or updates from friends and family. Try to avoid your phone for at least 30 minutes prior to going to sleep (and preferably longer). If your friends and family need to get in touch with you, they will call you.

I knew we were in trouble when information accommodations became popular bathroom features. Do I really need access to the Internet while in the shower? Or why would I need a WiFi’d refrigerator?

Expert advice for over-consumption is this: It's always important to take care of yourself but pay special attention to your level of mental fatigue right now. If you're feeling exhausted and fuzzy, it may be time to try as hard as you can to take a break from the deluge of new information, we're all facing each day.

Sounds to me like it’s a good idea to pull the plug; take long walks among those Texas Bluebonnets, meditate, lie in a hammock, or sit somewhere and people watch. Let’s turn our brains off from time-to-time, it could improve performance and our mental health.

Myra Jolivet is a storyteller. First a TV news anchor and reporter. Then came PR work and consulting. That's where she is today - banging her head against the wall - trying to help CEOs and political candidates tell their stories well. Myra writes a series of murder mysteries She was a kid with an imaginary friend. That says it all.